How to Pick the Best Name for Your Baby

Whether you go trendy or traditional, here's how to select the ideal name for your child.

The Name Game

pregnant mom reading book on couch

For as long as I can remember, I've wanted a daughter named Victoria. Elegant and sophisticated, "Victoria" seems fit for a princess. When I found out I was pregnant last year, I was ecstatic and couldn't wait to talk names. Luckily, my husband, Matt, loved "Victoria," too. Our family and friends had heard me talk about the name for years, so they weren't surprised when we announced it as our top pick for a girl. Matt and I even went as far as laying down the law on nicknames: "Vicky" was verboten, but we'd consider "Tori" when she was older. So you can imagine their surprise when we introduced everyone to our daughter, Mackenzie Elizabeth.

Yep, I have a daughter and her name isn't Victoria. Why not? Like many expectant parents, Matt and I spent countless evenings discussing names. I suggested Paige or Reid, a clever nod to my work as a writer, I thought. Matt just rolled his eyes. I rejected his suggestion of Skylar. Then I remembered a former coworker naming her daughter Mackenzie. I didn't think it was Matt's style, so I was shocked when he said, "I love it!" Though we immediately agreed on Michael for a boy, over the next few months we agonized over our girl's name. I would often ask, "Are you leaning more toward Victoria or Mackenzie for a girl?" and Matt would say he wasn't sure. And the weird thing was, neither was I. Our two picks were so different -- Victoria, traditional and feminine, and Mackenzie, more of-the-moment -- but we loved them both. Deep down, though, I wondered if I could really give up the name I'd loved practically forever.

Baby Arrives, Plans Change!

The answer came the second I locked eyes with my newborn daughter. I knew instantly that she was Mackenzie. It's hard to describe, but she just didn't look like a Victoria. I don't know whether it was the mischievous glint in her big blue eyes or the excited kicking of her skinny legs, but there was something so spunky, so exuberant about her that she had to be Mackenzie. When we told our families the name we'd chosen, they all agreed: Victoria is a beautiful name but our little imp is completely, undeniably Mackenzie.

Unique & Distinctive Names

Like Matt and I, most parents-to-be are on the prowl for that perfect name. "The number-one thing expectant parents are looking for today is something distinctive," says Laura Wattenberg, author of The Baby Name Wizard (Broadway) and mother of Eve and Nina. "They want a name that seems fresh and creative but doesn't cross the line into weirdness."

Going to Extremes

To come up with these monikers, parents are going to two extremes, says Linda Rosenkrantz, coauthor of Cool Names for Babies (St. Martin's Griffin) and Beyond Jennifer & Jason, Madison & Montana (St. Martin's) and mother of Chloe. "Some people are opting for unusual spellings and made-up names, while others are going back to very traditional names."

Old-fashioned appellations like Amelia, Grace, Hannah, Matilda, Henry, Oliver, Charles, and James are hot. On the other hand, so is creating a new name by combining two common choices. Brittany plus Katelynn can equal Brittlynn or Brandon and Aidan can merge into Brayden. These combo names keep one foot grounded -- the component names are well known -- while going beyond what's already been done.

Last Name First

Another big trend: using a surname such as Taylor, Jackson, Reagan, Madison, Shepherd, or Quinlin as a first name. Giving girls masculine-sounding surnames that correspond with a girlish nickname is also popular, says Wattenberg. Think Addison (Addie), Emerson (Emmy), and Cassidy (Cassie). Also fashionable are foreign names like Aidan (Irish) or Gianna or Giovanni (Italian). Suzanne Staszak-Silva and Fab Silva, of Scotch Plains, New Jersey, chose Mireille -- which is derived from the French word for miracle -- for their daughter.

Other foreign imports landing on American soil: Latin labels such as Joaquin, Cruz, and Mateo and names with an ancient Roman ring like Magnus and Phineus. Rosenkrantz predicts that Russian names like Natasha and Natalia for girls and Mischa and Sasha for boys will take off soon. Color names like Violet and Scarlett are also popular right now. "I have a new nephew named Cerulean, which is a shade of blue," adds Rosenkrantz.

Naming Strategies

A Name with Tradition

With the options for baby names practically limitless, how can you go about choosing? "There are two main strategies," says Wattenberg. "You either start with tradition by looking to your family tree or your ethnic or religious heritage -- or to names that just sound good to you. Naming based on tradition used to be the norm, but today, more parents are starting with style." Sean and Michelle Grady, of Plainview, New York, used both approaches: one for a first name and the other for a middle name.

"We printed out a list of names that I found online and put dots next to the ones we liked the sound of -- one dot if we liked it; two dots if we really liked it," says Michelle. They decided on Madison and paired it with Elizabeth, a family name suggested by Sean's sister, Kerri. "Elizabeth is Kerri's middle name, too, and my grandmother's name was Betsabe, which is a form of Elizabeth, so I liked that link as well," says Michelle.

Other parents take inspiration from their interests and passions. "Dave and I both love to cook and basil is one of our favorite herbs," says Vanessa Sherman, of Baltimore. "Dave recalled working with a chef named Basil, and we knew right away that was the name for our soon-to-be-born son." When naming her daughter, Staszak-Silva remembered her sister's elementary-school friend, Mireille. "The name fit my husband's criteria perfectly: It's not too trendy, too traditional, or too elaborate," she says.

Different Spellings, Different Names

Besides opting for original names, parents are playing with the alphabet to find creative ways to spell popular names. Though these spellings offer an interesting alternative, keep in mind that Ohliviah, Alexus, and Maddyson may spend a lot of time correcting people!

Keep in Mind...

Other than the name itself, there are some factors you'll want to take into consideration:

  • Your last name. "Many parents tend to only think about the first name, or the first and middle names," says Whitney Walker, mom to Gabriel and Jasper, and coauthor with husband, Eric Reyes, of The Perfect Baby Name: Finding the Name That Sounds Just Right (Berkley). "But at school, in social circles, and later in the business world, your child will be known by his full name." Walker suggests listening to the sounds in your last name and considering which you like and want to repeat and which you dislike and want to avoid. For example, you might want to mimic the short "i" sound in Smith by choosing a first name like Lily or William. Or perhaps you like the "w" sound in Walters but don't want to use a name that starts with "w." Consider a name like Noelle that has the "w" sound in the middle, says Walker. Ultimately, whether a name works or not is "in the ear of the listener," she says. "So choose a name that you think sounds good to you."
  • Initials and nicknames. Play around with your chosen name to see what nicknames pop out. Are you okay with them? Even if you don't call your child by a nickname, others might. Initials can also be a consideration. You don't have to abandon a name you adore, but be aware that if you name your daughter Sophia Annabelle Davis, her initials will be SAD. The good news: You aren't dooming her to a life of sorrow. A new study by researchers at Pomona College, in Claremont, California, debunked a previous report that said people with "bad" monograms (PIG, RAT, GAS) died earlier than those with positive initials (JOY, VIP, HIP). Still, while unfortunate initials may not be deadly, they might deter your child from getting things monogrammed. After all, who wants to start the day looking at bathroom towels that say "ZIT" or "FAT"?
  • Popularity. If you're worried that your child will be one of a multitude of Michaels or an army of Abigails, poll neighbors with young children to see what names they're hearing a lot. "For first-time parents, it's incredibly hard to judge what a popular name is," says Wattenberg. "That's why so many parents will say, 'I picked Olivia and now there are three of them in my daughter's class.'"

Finally, before you commit to a name, ask yourself, Would I feel I'm getting a good start in life if that were my name? suggests Wattenberg. The boom of creative names means that you don't have to worry so much that your child will be teased for his name -- Trinity is unlikely to hassle Destiny or Merc -- but you do want to choose a name your child can feel proud of.

To Share or Not to Share?

Once you land on the perfect name, should you spread the word or guard your chosen moniker closer than your maternity pants size? "Baby-naming is a competitive sport these days," says Rosenkrantz. "Parents often keep the name they've chosen to themselves because they don't want anyone to steal it and they don't want input." Another reason to keep your lips sealed: "Since everyone knew the sex of our baby from the ultrasound, we wanted his name to be a surprise," says Daimee Stadler, of Randolph, New Jersey. "We told people that his initials would be "BR" or "RB" in memory of my grandparents Bertha and Robert, but we didn't reveal the name -- Brett Ryan -- until he arrived." Vanessa and David Sherman, on the other hand, decided to divulge their son Basil's name ahead of time. "I think we needed to prepare our families," says Vanessa. "We didn't get a great reception at first, but everyone grew to love it."

After months of lists, comments, and reciting "The Name" ad nauseam, you'll probably look at your little Jessica, Ethan, or Ashley and be unable to imagine him or her with a more perfect name. That's certainly true of my Mackenzie. And who knows? Perhaps someday she'll have a sweet little sister named Victoria.

Popular Names & Naming Resources

From the surprisingly sedate (Sean) to the way out-there (CrimeFighter!), here are some of the names bestowed on 2005's celebrity offspring:

Denise Richards and Charlie Sheen: daughter, Lola

Heidi Klum and Seal: son, Henry Gunther Ademola Dashtu Samuel

Alice and Nicolas Cage: son, Kal-el (Superman's birth name)

Elisabeth and Tim Hasselbeck: daughter, Grace Elisabeth

Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck: daughter, Violet

Top Names of 1905 and 2005

According to the Social Security Administration, these were the most popular names last year and last century:

Top 10 Names for 2005

Girls:

Boys:

Top 10 Names for 1905

Girls:

Dorothy
Mildred

Boys:

Kristen Finello is a writer in Westfield, New Jersey.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, April 2006.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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