Baby Names

Naming your baby isn't on a very strict deadline.
Chanintorn Vanichsawangphan / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

How Long Do You Have To Name Your Baby?

Here's what to do if your baby arrives before you've found the perfect name.

Naming another human being is a big responsibility, and it’s no wonder that many parents agonize over it. While some parents have their perfect name picked out long before the baby arrives, others want to meet their baby before selecting a name, or simply need more time to come to a decision. But how long do indecisive parents have before they’re actually required to name their child? How long do you have to name your baby?

In the U.K., the answer is clear-cut: new parents are required to register the birth of a new child within 42 days, and face fines if they don’t. But things are a lot more loosey-goosey in the United States; different states have different laws and there’s not a clear, uniform deadline for when you need to name your child like there is in other countries. So in theory, you have an indefinite amount of time to pick a name. In practice, your life will be a lot easier if you decide on a name within the first few days of your child’s life, and certainly within the first year.

What’s The Typical Process For Naming Your Baby?

Even if you’re certain about your name choice when you go into labor, you won’t have to actually commit to a name until at least 24 hours after your baby finds its way into the world. If you gave birth in a hospital, hospital staff will typically give birth certificate paperwork to new parents sometime during their child’s first day of life. Hospitals are required to report all births to their state department, which then annually reports them to a federal agency, according to the CDC. The typical hospital stay after a vaginal delivery is 24 to 48 hours; for those whose babies were born by C-section, the typical stay is usually two to four days. Parents who are waffling on a name can easily take the full length of their hospital stay to get to know their new infant and try on their final name choices to find the one that fits. As long as they hand in the birth certificate paperwork before they are discharged, they won’t have any extra hoops to jump through.

Parents who have a home birth are also required to register their birth, and must contact their state’s department of vital records to get the proper paperwork. Time frames vary by state (for example, Minnesota requires that births be registered in five days, while California requires them to be registered in 10 days). No matter where you give birth, you won’t be asked to immediately commit to a name. (Well, at least not by the feds. Your parents or in-laws may be hounding you for an answer.)

What Happens If You Need Longer To Decide On A Baby Name?

Here’s where things get more complicated. State law requires hospitals or parents to register the birth, but registering a birth doesn’t necessarily require naming the child. In Time, Tanya Besu described how her parents couldn’t agree on whether to spell her name T-A-N-Y-A or T-A-N-I-A; her original birth certificate thus simply said “Babygirl Besu.” Her parents eventually did land on a spelling (her mom preferred the version with the “y”), but what if they had never picked out a name?

Carlton F.W. Larson, a law professor at UC Davis School of Law, has written a law review article about naming law in the United States and the constitutional rights implicated in a parent’s name choice. In an email to Romper, he explains that there isn’t a clear answer about how long parents have to land on name: “I’m hesitant to make any sweeping statements about timing” since, he noted, “it varies so much from state to state.” Strangely, Professor Larson notes, “It’s not clear that every state technically requires you to actually name your child at all.”


What If You Need to Change Your Baby’s Name?

Whether your child’s birth certificate says “Babygirl” where her name should be or says “Korn” when it was meant to say “Kora” (as happened to this Seattle woman), every state has a process for parents to correct a birth certificate.

It’s also possible to change your child’s name, often until that child becomes a legal adult (though some states require children over the age of 14 to consent to the change), but parents who have been through the process describe it as often both time-consuming and expensive. An Atlanta-based parent, Kelcey Kintner originally named her daughter “Presley” but realized a few months into her life that her daughter was a really more of a Summer. Kintner was living in New York at the time and had to go court for six different appearances in order to make the switch official. Laela Olague, a Tuscon-based parent, told her local station that, because she had waited longer than a year to decide on a name, she was required to pay $500 in order to have her son’s birth certificate say his name (“Perseus”) rather than the “Babyboy” placeholder. In short, if you are deeply regretting the name you chose at the hospital, or never chose one at all, it’s possible to name or re-name your child long after their birth — it will likely just take both time and money to make the change, and new parents often don’t have a lot of either of those things to spare.

Why Do Baby Names Matter?

Professor Larson suggests that a parent who actually never named their child “could potentially be subject to claims of child abuse or unfit parenting.” Names are important enough that the right to a name is enumerated in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. (Article 7 of the Convention states: “The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name. . .”)

Though parents may like the idea of letting a child pick his or her own name, it just isn’t very practical — parents will likely need a birth certificate with an actual name on it to do everything from getting their child on their health insurance plan to apply for parental leave benefits (if they live in a state that offers them). A child without a birth certificate won’t be able to get a social security card, enroll in school, or open a bank account. A 2016 Radiolab episode titled “The Woman Who Didn’t Exist” told the story of a woman whose parents had never gotten her a birth certificate, and how she found it impossible to participate in any aspect of society without one. In other words, even if a parent has lingering doubts, choosing a name, and expeditiously getting a birth certificate with that name on it, will make both the parent and child’s life much easier.


Carlton F.W. Larson, Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Law, UC Davis School of Law