Congratulations! You're pregnant during a golden age for baby naming. "There are just so many more names in use today than there were even a few decades ago," says Laura Wattenberg, author of The Baby Name Wizard. That means that, while the top ten names are still popular, it's unlikely that we'll see any become as ubiquitous as Jennifer and Michael once were, she says. And with more resources than ever—books, websites, lists that break names down by every possible factor—there's no reason why you can't find a name you (and your child) will absolutely love. To get there, follow this guide that helps you weed out names each trimester.
Go ahead, start now!
Were you doodling potential baby names before you even got a positive pregnancy test? I sure was. Heck, I was playing around with names (Nina, Sasha, and Claire were all early favorites) before I even found Mr. Right! It's never too soon to start making a list of names you love, says Pamela Redmond Satran, cofounder of Nameberry.com and coauthor of ten books about naming, including The Baby Name Bible. "In fact, it's one of the only things about pregnancy and your baby that you can actually control, so daydream to your heart's content!"
The vast majority of parents want a name that's unique but also familiar enough that it won't raise eyebrows. Thankfully, if that's you, there's an easy way to reach what Satran calls the Golden Mean. "On a list of the 1,000 most popular names in the U.S., you'd want something that falls roughly in the middle," she says, perhaps between 400 and 600. In 2013, the quite-normal names Rory, Mitchell, Gwendolyn, and Evie all fell in that range. You can consider anything below 50 to be fairly popular, Satran adds.
Watch for repetition
When browsing, remember that the Social Security Administration ranks each spelling of a name individually. So while Noah may have been #1 in 2013, it's quickly toppled by Aiden, Jackson, Jayden, and Jacob when you factor in their various spellings throughout the top 1,000. Why does that matter? Aiden, Aden, and Aydin all sound the same when called across the playground.
Keep an eye on trends
If your ultimate goal is to choose a name that stands out, also be aware of the "brother/sister" names (names that have similar sounds) of the most popular ones on that list. They can also get overused. For instance, my 4-year-old daughter Mia's pre-K class has not only two Sophias (the most popular girl's name three years running) but also two Olivias and another Mia—which I shouldn't have found surprising, given the current zeal for their melodious ee-ahh sounds. Of course, in some cases using a similar-sounding name that isn't as popular can give you exactly what you want—a whiff of trendiness, without having to always put an initial after your kid's name on her backpack. (Think: #316 Gemma or #653 Jemma, versus Emma, #2.)
Know your neighborhood
The name Madison may be in the top ten throughout the country, but that doesn't mean it's setting records in your part of the world. Likewise, looking at the rankings for your state (find them at SSA.gov/babynames) and talking to local nursery school teachers and parents of young kids can help you avoid a surprisingly popular choice. Paisley, for example, was the fifth most popular girl's name in Wyoming in 2013, but it ranked only 80th nationally. Look at your social circle, too, and consider the origin and general feeling of the names you find. You might think Ezekiel is unique (it's borderline, at #186), but if Levis and Ezras fill the Music Together classes in your town, there may be a little Ezekiel running around too. "Just don't go overboard with the desire to stand out," says Wattenberg. If you can't imagine naming your son anything other than Ezekiel, that's all that matters.
Try names on for size
A lot of parents-to-be prefer not to share their final contenders with friends or relatives. But it's actually smart to gauge public reaction. To do so privately, use one of your favorite names the next time you order a latte at Starbucks, says Jennifer Moss, founder and CEO of BabyNames.com. (Or have your partner try it with a boy's name.) How does the barista react? Can she spell it? When I was pregnant with my youngest daughter, Phoebe, I managed to nix both the lovely Penelope and Genevieve this way. It bothered me that both names tangled people's tongues—and I didn't want to shorten them to Penny or Ginny for expediency.
Poll your inner circle
Even if you're keeping a name quiet, it's worth divulging it to a few key confidantes whose taste you admire. They just might see something you don't or come up with an association you might not have noticed: "Do you watch Scandal? It's all I can think about when I hear the name Cyrus."
Think in the future tense
You've probably heard of the senator test: Will a name befit someone of gravitas and success? But that only works if you favor traditional names, says Wattenberg, and even at that, it's hardly a solid test. Just look at Condoleezza Rice. That said, choosing a name with some flexibility can't hurt. "We named our first daughter Charlotte, but we call her Charlie," says Maggie Shaw, a mom of two girls in San Francisco. "If she decides at some point that she doesn't want to have that nickname or prefers to go by something more formal, she can go back to Charlotte."
Let go of your dreams (maybe just a little)
If any of these tests reveals a glaring problem with a contender, don't just ignore it. As a lifelong Francophile, Marisa Kramer, a mom of two in Los Angeles, had always loved the boy's name Loren. But when it came time to name her son, she had to let it go. "Few people would pronounce it in the proper French way (Lor-EN) here, and I also didn't want him to be made fun of for having a feminine-sounding name," she says. So you're dying to raise an athlete or musician? Think twice before saddling your child (who may have no such desire or aptitude) with a name that reflects that, says Moss. I would hate to be a tone-deaf Axl or an uncoordinated Beckham.
Turn your attention to only the positive
Once you've vetted your list of names for dealbreakers, "narrow up" by writing out what makes each name special, Wattenberg says. This way, instead of choosing a name with the least amount of negatives, you end up with one that has the most positive attributes—so you'll feel happier and more confident with your pick. So long, name regret.
Choose a middle name
But don't hem and haw over it. "People expect too much heavy lifting from a middle name, but unless you're planning to call your child something like Anne Marie, the middle name's pretty much off to the side after you mail out those birth announcements," Wattenberg says. I ultimately gave Phoebe the middle name Alexandra, after a relative, but even at the hospital, I debated using one of our runners-up or even a more masculine middle name to balance out her quite feminine first one. That's not at all uncommon, says Wattenberg, who's seen a trend of parents choosing a deliberately contrasting or even somewhat wacky middle name (think: Danger), just in case their child wants to go by something different down the road. Regardless of what you choose, make sure the middle initial doesn't introduce any monogram mishaps that could trigger teasing later on.
Check your top pick against the last name
If your child's last name is a tongue twister or has a ton of letters, consider a shorter, simpler first name to help lighten that load, says Moss. If the last name lends itself to teasing (like Hogg), make sure your fave contender has an especially pleasing sound to distract from it. Also look closely at the junction where the first and last name meet up, Wattenberg adds. Consider the name Jonas Anders. It sounds like Jonah Sanders! And while it might seem obvious, listen for any pairings that add up to something rather ridiculous—what Wattenberg calls the Justin Case scenario.
Zero in on the spelling
All the experts we spoke to advise going with the most accepted spelling of a name—so Hailey, not Ha'Leigh. Added apostrophes and haphazard capitalization can especially gum up the works, says Satran. By skipping an unusual spelling, you'll help your kiddo avoid wasting hours of her life correcting people—or worse, having them cast judgment before they've met her, Moss says. It's never too early to think about college applications!
It can be hard enough to settle on one name, let alone the perfect names for multiples or a complement to a big sister or brother. For me, I was determined to find a girl's name that didn't rhyme with Mia, my oldest daughter's name—this nixed a lot of popular choices. Four things to avoid:
- Super-close rhymes Chloé and Zoé might seem cute right now, but your daughters might not love how matchy-matchy their names are when they're 30.
- The same initial No joke: I know a family made up of parents Joe and Jane and kids Georgie and Gillian. Sure, you could argue that this scheme creates family unity, says Satran, but it's also very limiting and a touch gimmicky. The rule: Never go full Kardashian.
- Male-female pairs Names like Julian and Julianna don't give each child a ton of individuality—something that's especially important to consider when naming twins, says Satran.
- Inconsistency Naming one son something simple, such as Ryan, and the other something with a hint of whimsy, like Chauncey, could prove confusing to everyone—your children included.
Originally published in the August 2014 issue of American Baby Magazine.