How to Choose a Name for Your Baby

Baby Names Tips for Picking a First, Middle, and Last Name

Choosing your baby's name is an important decision you have to make as a parent. It can be fun, but the responsibility of naming another human being can make it a bit intimidating. After all, your child will carry that name throughout their life. 

You may already have a good idea of what you’re looking for in a name. But, your partner, family, and friends may have a few opinions of their own. It can definitely be tough to get everyone on the same page. It doesn't have to be a stressful experience, though. It can be very enjoyable. Here you'll find information and tips for getting through it and picking the perfect name for your baby—even if you're thinking about more unique names for your baby

Inspiration for baby naming
Illustration by Emily Roberts, Verywell  

Choosing Baby Names

You may have a long list of girl names, boy names, and gender-neutral names already started by the time you find out you’re expecting, but not everyone does. Some parents start from scratch with each child, and some even wait until the baby is born to choose a name. Each parent finds inspiration differently.

Many expectant parents begin with a specific category in mind, and there are many categories to consider. 

1:11

Moms Share Advice On Picking Your Baby's Name

Family Names 

  • Grandparent’s names 
  • Mother’s maiden name
  • Juniors or III, IV
  • Family traditions

Cultural or Ethnic Names

Place Names

  • Countries
  • Cities 
  • States

Names From Pop Culture

  • Actors
  • Movie characters
  • Book characters
  • Television characters
  • Video game characters
  • Musicians
  • Songs
  • Artists
  • Disney
  • Athletes
  • Politicians

Religious Names

  • Christian 
  • Jewish
  • Muslim
  • Virtue Names
  • Spiritual Names

Other Popular Categories

And many, many, more. 

It might seem overwhelming, but there are ways to narrow it down. You can go through an alphabetical list of names in a book and check off the ones you like, or you can choose a name you find appealing and look for others that are similar. You can also get your list started by asking family and friends for suggestions, or you can pick a category of names and go from there. There’s not a right or wrong way to do it, so go with what works for you and your partner. If one way doesn’t seem to be going too well, then switch it up and try something else. 

Choosing a Middle Name

You don’t have to give your child a middle name. However, the vast majority of American families prefer to give one to their baby. The nice thing about it is that most people feel less stressed over the middle name. 

The middle name has a few practical uses. For parents who give their child a family name that others in the family also have, a middle name helps to provide the child with a separate identity (cousins John Robert, John Joseph, and John Christopher can all feel as though they have their own name even though they are all named after grandpa). A middle name is also the perfect place to hide the family name that you're choosing out of obligation and not because you love it. Or, it can be a place to have a little bit of fun. If you’re going with a more formal first name, the middle name can be more creative or unique. Or, if you’re choosing a very unusual first name, the middle name can be more traditional.

A middle name is also a great place to put a safety name or a fallback name for your child to use later in life in case they don't love their first name. If you choose a gender-neutral first name for your child, you can add a gender-specific middle name such as Avery Duane or Sydney Elizabeth. It gives kids options as they grow. If it’s necessary, being able to fall back on a traditional middle name can help boost your child's self-esteem and self-confidence too.

Choosing a Last Name 

When it comes to your child’s last name, you may not have a choice. In some states and countries, the baby must be given the father’s last name, if known. Sometimes it has to be the mother’s last name. Other places allow for more options, especially if mom and dad aren't married.

Some families have parents with different last names who hyphenate them to indicate the joining of the two families (e.g., Mary Smith-Jones). Other families choose to combine parts of each parent’s last name to make a new last name (e.g., Davis and Anderson = Daverson or Andervis). And, some families do not use either parent's last name. Instead, they give their child a completely different last name. 

Family Traditions

Family traditions can play a big part in baby naming. Your family may have a long history of using the same naming pattern. For example, the first boy gets the middle name of the paternal grandfather, and the second boy gets the middle name of the maternal grandfather. 

Other families have long lines of boys with the same name. It starts with a Senior (Sr.) and Junior (Jr.), then it goes on to Roman numerals such as Michael Smith Sr., Michael Smith Jr., Michael Smith III, and so on. If your family does not do this, it's a great way to create a new family tradition. And, even though it is often passed down among the men in the family, the women can start this tradition, too.  

You may also wish to consider traditions that involve:

  • Giving a tribute to deceased relatives
  • Honoring your heritage and ancestry
  • Maintaining a brand of initials (the same initials for everyone in the immediate family)
  • Creating a unique name out of a combination of family first or last names

Birth Certificates and Legal Issues 

A birth certificate is issued for every live birth in the United States. The parents, doctor or midwife, and hospital or birthing center staff usually fill out and submit all the paperwork. The time you have to complete this paperwork varies. 

Parents often ask whether or not they have to decide on their baby’s name before leaving the hospital. The answer is typically no. So, it's usually not an issue if you're planning to name your child at a religious ceremony. But, you can prepare for this situation before you have your baby by checking with the birth certificate clerks at the local hospital or the Department of Vital Statistics where you live to get the information about the laws in your area.

While some countries have many laws about what you can and cannot name your baby, the United States does not have too many rules of that nature. The name laws in America are usually there for practical reasons. So, you should generally be OK. However, you may run into a problem if you want to use a picture or a symbol in your child's name. 

Note: Babies born in the hospital are often given a fancy piece of paper with the baby's footprints and birth information. This paper is a keepsake and not the child’s official birth certificate.

Religious Considerations and Naming Ceremonies 

Religious obligations for naming a baby vary greatly. Some parents give their baby the name of a figure within their religion, and some parents give their baby a name with a spiritual meaning. You should talk to your pastor, priest, rabbi, imam, or another religious leader about your specific customs. 

Many different religions hold a baby naming ceremony. In some form, this type of celebration is part of the Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, and Islamic faiths as well as other religions and cultures. It is a time to welcome the baby into the religious community and bestow blessings and good wishes upon the child. 

The ceremony may take place in a church, another house of worship, or at home. A religious leader, family members, friends, and other members of the community may attend. Sometimes the name given at a naming ceremony is the same one that’s on the baby’s birth certificate, and sometimes it is an additional spiritual name that is not on the birth certificate. 

Tips to Consider When Naming Your Baby

After you take into account family traditions, religious considerations, and any potential legal issues, you may finally have a first, middle, and last name that you’re ready to run with. You can do that, of course. But it's worth considering a few more things before making it official. Here are some tips for making sure the perfect name is really "the one." 

  1. Write out the initials. You may want to make sure that you aren't giving your baby initials that spell something rude or odd such as Aaron Simon Samuels or Claire Octavia Wilson.
  2. Think about the nicknames. Take a look at all the potential nicknames people could give your child and make sure you not only like them but that you feel good about how they match with your last name.
  3. Consider sibling names. You may want to give your children names that all have the same first initial or names that sound well together since they'll often be said in the same breath. Plus, it may be difficult to explain to your kids why one has a super unique name (say, Zaphon) when his brother's name is Bob.
  4. Be careful with meanings. Some states and countries actually have laws that prevent you from naming a child anything that is considered a historical problem, like Adolf Hitler or Satan.
  5. Give thought to the uniqueness. Unique names are creative and fun. But, a name that is too unique can be tough to get through life with. If it is too difficult to spell or pronounce, others may avoid saying it. The child may have to repeat it and spell it out over and over again.
  6. Check for multiple spellings. You may not be sure of a specific name, but when you change the spelling, it can make all the difference. It can also make a difference in how easy or difficult it is for your child to spell and explain.
  7. Check for similar names. A similar name may strengthen your case for the name you love or make that fringe name seem more acceptable. It can fix an issue with initials, meaning, or nicknames, too. 
  8. Add a little diversity. If you aren’t sure about a very unique name or a very traditional name, balance it out with a middle name. Pick a conventional name for the first name and a unique name for the middle name, or vice versa. 
  9. Don’t be afraid to change a tradition. Some last names have made their way into the world of first names (Lennon, Avery). And, some boy’s names are becoming more and more common for girls (Hayden, Jordan). 
  10. Realize your geography may matter. You might love a name that is geographically bound, perhaps to a local celebrity or location. But, it may be looked at differently in different areas of the country or the world which may bother you or not. 

Arguing With Your Partner About Baby Names

You may find that you and your partner do not see eye to eye when it comes to baby names. Do not panic. It is fairly normal. It's also a great reason to start talking about baby names really early on. The more time you have to talk about it, the less stressed you'll feel.

One method that works well if you have a partner who is continually rejecting names is to ask them for a list of boy and girl names that they like. It certainly narrows your choices, but it can prevent a lot of frustration when you don't otherwise know what they consider to be a "good name." Your partner’s list can also be a starting point. For example, if your partner has Paula on the list of girls names, but you’re not fond of it, you can consider variations of that name. Maybe you like Paulina instead, or Paul for a boy.  

Sometimes arguments can get heated. If you can't decide on a name together, you can agree on another way to name the baby. For example, some families allow the mother to pick the girl names and the father to pick the boy names. Or the mom can choose the name of the first baby and the dad can name the second baby. You may also agree to have someone else such as a family member, choose a name. Perhaps each grandparent can submit a name, and then decide on one as a family. The good news is that baby naming doesn't usually get to this point. 

Dealing With Family and Friends

If you want to get input from your family and friends, that’s great. You can take all their suggestions and go through them. You may end up with a surprise and fall in love with a name you’ve never considered.

Of course, getting advice isn’t always pleasant. Sometimes family can get pushy about a name or find reasons why they don’t care for the name you are leaning toward. Family and friends are usually not shy about sharing their feelings. They may try to get you to change your mind, so be prepared. If you can ignore their objections and not let their negativity sway you, then go ahead and tell them what you’re thinking. But, if it would really bother you to hear negative things about the name you love, then you can keep that name to yourself until after your baby is born. 

You may also want to consider how well your family handles change. If you anticipate your family becoming upset because you’re going to break a tradition, you may want to warn them in advance. That doesn’t mean you have to tell the name you plan to use. It just means they’ll have time to get used to the idea of change. Be understanding if they are disappointed, but stay firm in your commitment to your baby's name.

No matter what, your family and friends will get used to the name you choose even if they have serious objections in the beginning. If you and your partner love the name and feel confident in the choice, then go with it. Your family and friends will adore your child, and the name will grow on them. They may even find that they love the name after spending a little time around it.

How Popularity Is Determined 

The popularity of baby names in the United States comes from actual birth data and birth certificates of babies born each year for over 100+ years. The Social Security Administration (SSA) collects the information and makes it available on its website. You can search the top names in the nation by gender and by state. 

The popularity of a name can be useful information as you begin your search for the perfect baby name. It's helpful if you're looking to give your child a trendy name, and even more helpful if you're hoping to avoid an extremely popular name. It's also a good idea to check the state lists since the popularity of a name can vary significantly from one part of the country to the next. What is popular in one state may be uncommon and unique in another. 

Other Uses for Baby Name Data

Expecting parents aren’t the only ones who search for baby names. Researchers look at baby naming data to find trends over time. They can see how music, movies, books, politics, religion, and other sources influence the popularity of baby names.

Authors also use baby name data when they’re writing a book or story. It is a great way to choose historically accurate names for characters. Since the data is from birth certificates, the author can know, with a fair bit of accuracy, which baby names were common when their story is taking place. 

An interesting note is that the Social Security naming data goes back for many decades—into the 1800s. The state data, however, only goes back as far as 1960. So, it may be a little more challenging to find a regional name using only the data from the Social Security Administration.

A Word From Verywell

Naming a baby can be exciting or stressful, or both. You may be feeling the pressure of giving a child a name they will have for a lifetime. But, while you should certainly put some thought into it and take it seriously, you can also have fun with it and get a little creative. 

You can give your child a name that is full of meaning and tradition, has historical importance, or embodies a free-spirit. But, you’ll also want to try to choose a name that will fit your baby through infancy, childhood, and adulthood. Whatever you decide, if it’s a name that you and your partner love and feel really good about, chances are your child will love it, too. And, don't forget that choosing your baby's name is a memorable time and a special decision, so trust yourself and enjoy it. 

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Larson, C.F.W. (November 2011). "Naming Baby: The Constitutional Dimensions of Naming Rights". George Washington Law Review. 80 (1).