Baby name game

Here I am, 37 weeks pregnant, asking to generate sister names for Maria and Jane, my two daughters. 

Three come up on the lists for both girls: Elizabeth, Anna and Sarah. 

For a moment, I feel something loosen in me, a surrender: OK, we’ll just use one of these. We’ll let the experts decide for us. 

Only yesterday a friend commented on how lovely Anna Ries would sound, and I know it’s a family name. 

Good enough.  

Finding the perfect baby name may well be the hardest task of pregnancy, one that often consumes a full nine months and occasionally requires a couple days past delivery for bleary-eyed, battle-worn parents paralyzed by a case of last-minute indecision. 

For those like my husband and me, who don’t learn the gender of Baby while in utero, it’s doubly hard, demanding of us the perfect first-and-middle name combination for a boy and a girl.

Since we already have two girls, we’re now seeking fifth and sixth girl names we both love. 

No small feat.  

Where to begin?

I favor the website Baby Name Wizard (based off the book by Laura Wattenberg) because it suggests sibling names for any name you enter. This may be particularly helpful if you already have a child, but it’s useful in general if you’re looking for insight into how your favorites sound and what effects they have on the ear and mind. 

It can also lead you to a new favorite: Enter a name you like and then discover a similar one you love.

For instance, Caroline begets Catherine, which leads to Elizabeth and then Emily, which suggests Sarah, then Rachel and Rebecca. Andrew begets Matthew, which leads to Michael, then Daniel, then David. 

Be warned: This little game has no off-ramp. You can keep going and going and going. 

Another website you can get lost in is the Social Security Administration’s database of baby names.

Plenty of websites dangle the click-bait of “Most Popular Baby Names,” but this one provides the definitive answer, based on Social Security card applications submitted by parents across the country. 

This is where you can let the data speak to you, especially if you hope to avoid a super-popular name. 

I don’t want to my daughter to be the third Ava in her class, resigned to a life of always using the first initial of her last name, so I mind this list. I feel a need to categorically reject any Top 10 names. 

Classic names, local faves

The Social Security site shares the most popular 1,000 names in the country by year, dating back to 1880, when Mary and John topped the list. It also allows you to type any name and see its history, so you can determine whether it’s trending up or down. 

Not only do I like to see the trajectories of my favorites, but I also use this as a tool for generating ideas; since I like classic names, I’ll peek at 1920, when Florence, Louise, Henry and Walter dominated. 

You can also search by state, which adds another interesting twist. 

The Social Security baby name database reveals some clear preferences among Minnesotans — primarily, a penchant for old-fashioned names. 

For example, Evelyn ranks No. 3 here, but only 15th nationally. Nora is ranked 4th here, but 41st nationally. For boys, Henry is No. 1 here, but only 29th nationally. Oliver is No. 2 here, but No. 19 across the U.S. — all as of 2015, the most recent data available at press time. (Data for 2016 is expected to be released in May at

Beyond Biblical, popular 

On the flip side, Biblical names tend to be less of a hit here than on a national scale. 

Be warned that Lucy and Leo are both particularly popular in Minnesota (Lucy’s at 15 versus 55 nationally; Leo’s at 21 versus 91). They’re both exploding on a national level, too, having shot up from the distant 300s since 2000. 

Alice has been on a break-neck flight, surging to No. 87 nationally from 414 just 10 years prior. 

But don’t be too discouraged if your favorite name ranks high. 

Even if you try to choose what you think will be a unique name, you’ll still be at the mercy of what experts call hyper-local forces — including race, socio-economic and cultural factors — that result in certain names cropping up en masse at the same preschools. 

However — because there are more names in circulation today — it’s not as if your child will be surrounded by kids of the same name. 

In 2015, 376 Olivias, our state’s No. 1 girl name, were born in Minnesota along with 205 Graces, our state’s 10th most popular name for females.

Compare that with state data for 1960, when 1,468 Minnesota babies were named Mary and a whopping 1,977 were given the name David. 

Ultimately, a baby’s name doesn’t have as much impact as we sometimes imagine, according to the authors of Freakonomics. 

It reflects more on the parents’ backgrounds than the baby’s fate. 

In the end, the names we choose always seems to suit each child perfectly, anyway, don’t they?

So after you’ve trolled all the websites and finalized your list, don’t be afraid to just go with your gut. 

Christina Ries, who lives in Inver Grove Heights, gave birth to a son in March and named him Archie. To find out his full name and to see more photos of him and his sisters, see 

 This article’s author, Christina Ries, welcomes her son, Archie, with her husband, Ted, and their daughters, Maria, 4, and Jane, 2, along with the their maternal grandparents, Paul and Ellen Capecchi. Photo by Meredith Westin Photography

Top of page: Liora, 6 months, of Lakeville. Liora photos by Allyson Wasmund Photography