Unique baby names are no longer only the domain of celebrities.

Australian mums and dads are now much more imaginative when picking names than previous generations were.

“It’s extremely trendy at the moment to choose unique names,” says Ella Joynes, author of Baby Names Australia 2019.

“The current fashion when choosing names is one that allows for a bit more creativity,” agrees Dan Woodman, associate professor of sociology at University of Melbourne.

This trend toward picking distinctive baby names is driven partly by current society’s focus on individuality and self-expression, experts say, and partly influenced by parents’ exposure to a wider range of naming options than ever before.

What dilemmas or considerations did you encounter when choosing your baby’s name? What did you settle on, and why? Tell us in the comments below.

Fewer babies given ‘top names’ compared to previous generations

Cute little boy about three years old on a playground slide
Image Parents today may be actively trying to reduce the chance of their kid sharing a playground with three kids who have the same name.(Unsplash)

All generations have certain baby names they embrace. In the past, this saw popular baby names become so common there were often several children with the same name in any playground.

“I’m a Dan, and when I was a kid there was always another Dan, or two, or three in my class,” recalls Dr Woodman. “I used to be called Tall Dan.”

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But today, kids with the most popular names are statistically unlikely to share a school, let alone a classroom, with a peer who has the same name.

Back in 1988, 1,212 boys were given Victoria’s most popular name (yes, Daniel). Fast forward 30 years, and it took less than half that number for a name to become most popular: in 2018, 507 male babies were named Oliver, giving it the title, data from Births, Deaths and Marriages reveals.

Go back one more generation, and popular baby names were even more concentrated.

The top boy name in 1958 (Peter) was used 2,141 times in Victoria — more than three times the usage of the most popular name in 2017.

When factoring in the significant population increase over the past half century, that’s a dramatic difference.

Popularity of most popular baby names over three decades

Boys registered with most popular baby name Girls registered with most popular baby name Total babies registered with most popular name Number of babies registered overall (both sexes) % of all babies registered with popular names
1958 2,141 1,043 3,184 59,613 5.34%
1988 1,212 1,056 2,268 62,325 3.64%
2018 507 374 881 79,726 1.11%

Source: Births, Deaths and Marriages VIC

A similar trend holds true in NSW across all three generations, says Kimberley Linco, social researcher at Australian research company McCrindle, which releases annual baby name reports based on Births, Deaths and Marriages data.

The trend isn’t only generational, either: even in the past few years, the most popular names have been used less commonly than the year before, as the below graph comparing Australia-wide naming trends shows.

Individuality and ‘personal branding’

So why are parents moving away from the concentrated use of the most popular names?

Experts say it might reflect modern society’s celebration of individuality and a related focus on personal branding.

Cute baby boy and his dad against a background of bubbles, for a story about unique baby name popularity.
Image These days, a name is not just what your parents and teachers call you — it’s your identity, your social media handle, your website, one expert says.(Unsplash)

“Names mean something different now; it used to be that you were named after a grandparent or a religious figure. Now it’s about individual identity,” says Michelle Brady, a UQ senior research fellow in sociology.

Some parents are going so far as to actively consider their children’s future online profile, Ms Linco adds.

“In today’s world, a name is more than what a teacher calls you — it’s your identity, your social media handle, your website. And parents don’t want their kids to be Sarah Smith 203,” she says.

Dr Woodman, whose work focuses on youth, generations and social change, agrees: “People are more interested in a personal brand [today] because they have to be, in some senses.

“It’s what’s expected of you to kind of navigate the job market these days, that you treat your life more broadly as a kind of branding and CV-building exercise.”

Greater access to name options

The trend is also simply down to parents’ exposure to more options.

“If we look back to previous decades, today there’s just so much more access to names,” Ms Linco says.

Baby name books only started to emerge in the 1980s, and they were the first known baby name lists that were compiled, she says.

“Prior to that, the only names that people were given were names that people were aware of.”

A couple sitting on a bed lovingly and looking at a baby names book, for a story about unique baby name popularity.
Image Baby name blogs, websites, lists and reports suggesting names and charting their popularity over the years have exposed parents to more name options than ever before.(Unsplash)

In the past few decades, there’s been an explosion of baby name blogs, websites, lists and reports, suggesting names and charting their popularity.

Social media exposure to celebrity baby names has also had an impact.

“With Instagram, we’re able to see such unique insights into celebrities’ lives. It’s nothing like we’ve ever seen before,” Ms Linco says.

“And celebrities today are almost showing the world that it’s OK to give your kids a unique name.”

A reaction to parents’ own experiences

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Today’s parents are also actively trying to avoid name double-up in the classroom that they themselves experienced, experts speculate.

The average first-time mum today was born in the late ’80s, “and in class in school they would have had a lot of Matthews, Chrises, Daniels, Samanthas, Jessicas,” Ms Linco says.

Dr Woodman agrees.

“Maybe a few less Dans and Sams and Toms is not a bad thing.”

A gendered trend

Popular boys’ names have always been more commonly used than popular girls’ names — and therefore more densely concentrated — than popular girls’ names.

Very cute baby girl wearing a pink bow with her mum blurred in the background, for a story about unique baby name popularity.
Image Parents of girls are increasingly choosing names that push gender boundaries.(Unsplash)

That’s partly because parents traditionally opted for more conservative, “business-friendly” names for their sons, Dr Woodman speculates.

Today, as gender roles and the working world changes, it’s possible those restrictions are freeing up.

Parents of girls, in particular, are increasingly choosing names that push gender boundaries, sometimes consciously opting for traditionally masculine names with leadership or strength-related meanings.

Girls’ names remain more inventive than boys’ names today — the top girls’ names were given to significantly fewer babies than the top boys’ names in 2017, Ms Linco points out.

But overall, parents are being more inventive in naming both sons and daughters than they were in the past.

“It’s almost like the rules when it comes to names just no longer exist,” Ms Linco says.

“Everyone’s so much more accepting now, and the social taboos have kind of faded away.”

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