Some parents have an inkling of what their newbie’s name will be long before they ever stare down at those two pink lines. Others wait until baby is in arms to see what name suits her best. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, deciding what to write on the birth certificate is rarely an easy task.
Your little one will tote around this string of letters for her entire life—from how she introduces herself on the first day of kindergarten to what will ring through the speakers on graduation day. It will sit atop her resume and be scrawled across her business cards. It will be the name you whisper when you tell her goodnight and what you’ll shout at soccer matches as you cheer her on.
“When I became pregnant with my first child, I became acutely aware of the permanence of a name,” says Bonnie Bell, author of Word to Your Mother, a two-book guide to naming your baby. “I became convinced that most, if not all, parents aren’t choosing names based on meanings in the book, but that either on a conscious or unconscious level, selection is a psychosociological decision.”
Just as every child and every parent is unique, so, too, is the reason and meaning behind every name. How can you narrow the never-ending playing field to find a label you (and hopefully she) will love? Take a deep breath. There are no hard and fast rules, but there are some guidelines that can point you and your pen in the right direction.
Baby’s name can be one that you found in a big book of baby names, but sometimes parents prefer to have a special meaning behind the name, a story to share with their wee one about how they chose the just-right title for her.
“The options are seemingly overwhelming; however, parents soon discover that they become drawn to certain name styles and categories,” notes Bell, who suggests parents look inside themselves for ideas. “After all, the naming of a child is the selection of a word that they love and that they will breathe life into as they use it to identify their baby.”
Here are some sources of inspiration, so you can find a personal pick for your mini …
- Climb the family tree
Jennifer Moss, founder and CEO of BabyNames.com, suggests starting with your relatives. “Look at both first names and last names, as surnames have become very popular lately.”
- Pull out a map
Maybe you and your partner want to commemorate a place that’s special to you both—a romantic getaway, your honeymoon, a favorite spot, the street you first lived on together.
- Scan the bookshelf
Perhaps a favorite fictional character—think film or literature—inspired you. By passing the name on to your tot, you can give her someone to look up to from the start.
Deciding on baby’s title isn’t always a smooth process. Name expert Jennifer Moss shares her advice for overcoming common hurdles.
When your sister-in-law/best friend uses your dream name first …
If the children will not be in the same schools or live in the neighborhood, it’s OK if they have the same name.
When naming your son after his father makes him so-and-so III or IV …
I don’t believe in naming a son after the father. Everyone in the household should have his or her own identity, without the burden of filling anyone’s shoes.
When you and your partner can’t agree …
Make sure both parents are coming to the table with names and suggestions. Sometimes one parent takes the role of king and vetoes everything, and that’s not fair.
When friends, family members or strangers criticize the name before baby even arrives …
If you’re getting a lot of criticism on the name, then stop telling people what you’ve chosen. There is such a thing as too much input.
When you think you’ve found a contender worth dubbing your little one, Moss suggests stepping into your child’s shoes to see if the name works. The last thing you want is to bestow a burden that’s impossible to spell, hard to pronounce or makes them a target for ridicule. Run it through a quick test by asking yourself these seven questions …
- How does it sound with the family surname?
- What could possible nicknames be? Think both good and bad.
- What would her initials be?
- What does it rhyme with or sound like? Playground bullies will figure it out if you don’t.
- What is the meaning behind the name?
- Are there any questionable modern-day associations with the name? Google it to find out.
- Can it grow with your child? A “cutesy” name is adorable for a toddling 2-year-old, but does it translate to the boardroom?
Stuck in the middle
The middle name is a great blank canvas to fill with whatever nominal dreams your heart (or dad’s) desires. There’s infinitely less pressure!
“I think you can be more creative with middle names because they are not as apparent or tied to one’s identity as the first name,” Moss says. “Just watch out that the initials don’t spell anything embarrassing like HOG or PIG or KKK.”
This center spot is perfect for honoring a relative or your family’s heritage. Don’t have a family name that’s been passed down? Try finding one inspired by your Polish roots. You can even give a subtle nod to your maiden name with a clever variation. If you were a Callahan, try Callen. If you come from a long line of Northrops, think Nora.
If baby’s first name is more traditional, the middle name could be an ideal opportunity to infuse a bit of fun with a more unusual title. Some mamas and papas even opt to select a sole initial and leave the rest up to their tot’s creativity when she’s old enough to dub herself. (Keep in mind, this could lead to middle names, like Pony or Rocket, that sound cool to 8-year-olds but probably not to 38-year-olds.)
The results are in …
Here’s what recent studies suggest about the importance of a name:
- If your name is easier to pronounce, people are more likely show you favor.
According to researchers at New York University, we tend to like names (or any information for that matter) that we can process easily, which explains why this study found individuals with easy-to-pronounce names usually have higher-ranking positions in the workplace.
- If your name is more common, you have a greater chance of being hired.
In a Marquette University study, researchers found that monikers that were less unusual were thought of more favorably—and thus, more likely to be offered a job.
- If your name falls closer to the beginning of the alphabet, you could get accepted to a better school.
A study published in Economics of Education Review revealed that the name at the top of your college application could affect your chance of getting into competitive universities.
- If you use your middle initial, people could think you are smarter.
The European Journal of Social Psychology published a study that shows adding your middle initial—to an essay or any assignment you hand in— could up your odds of getting top marks. (The paper with the most initials got the highest ratings, so maybe multiple middle names isn’t such a bad thing.)
- If you are a woman with an androgynous name, you could be more successful.
According to The Atlantic, women with “sexually ambiguous” names tend to fare better in fields dominated by men (such as engineering or law). One study out of Clemson University found that women with masculine sounding monikers led more successful legal careers.
Make the grade
Rating names is a matter highly steeped in personal and cultural preferences, but that didn’t stopped Albert Mehrabian, PhD, a professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA, from uncovering some secrets behind how people react to names. Mehrabian, who has been contacted by hundreds of parents for baby-naming advice, believes that a name can determine how people treat and think about you.
Through his years of research, he has designed a grading system that rates names based on attractiveness (in other words, whether people imagine someone with that name to be successful, warm, loyal, humorous, etc.). According to Mehrabian, the associations many people have with particular names are based on their personal experiences—like they went to school with a Wesley. But other factors come into play, like prominent historical figures, the visual image of the letter at the beginning and end of a name, and the harshness and softness of sounds.
Names that score well according to Mehrabian’s system are not an indicator of popularity, which he says is determined by passing trends. (For example, unique names are in high demand, but Mehrabian’s findings show the more unfamiliar a moniker is, the more undesirable the impression it leaves.)
So what would he recommend? Top names for girls include Jacqueline, Katherine, Elizabeth and Morgan, while prime picks for boys are Steven, Ross, James and Christopher. On the flip side, he’d have you steer clear of Wilma, Virgie and Trixie, as well as Rufus, Butch and Angel.
The best advice we can give: Think about what’s important to you, whether it’s honoring someone you admire or embracing your ancestry. Some will value the meaning behind a name. Others will care more about what it sounds like. Just remember that your baby is special and unique no matter what you write on that birth certificate—Mary, Marley or Marlowe (or whatever else you come up with)—she’s one of a kind.