Car Seat Expiration Questions Answered, Plus a Used Car Seat Check List
Question: Can I Use My Expired Car Seat?
Answer: “NO,” not according to the manufacturer. Always follow manufacturer instructions, including expiration dates. Only the manufacturer of your car seat can advise you to do something other than what is printed on your car seat labels or instruction manual.
There are many reasons that manufacturers have expiration dates for car seats:
- Plastics and materials weaken with age from prolonged exposure to light, oxygen, humidity, extreme heat, temperature cycles or even vibration
- Damage like cracks and stress marks can result from drops or crashes
- Parts can go missing, including essential ones for switching modes
- Vomit, cleaners & oxidation can damage harness and adjustment mechanisms
- Labels peel and wear, making it more difficult to find limits, instructions, model number information to check for recalls and if the seat was actually certified for use in your country
- Manufacturers want to sell you a safer new seat with the latest technology
It’s that last reason that leads some caregivers to believe in conspiracy theories. Are all the manufacturers and retailers colluding with each other to fill our landfills with perfectly good [used] car seats just to profit by selling you a new one?
Car seat manufacturers are, after all, for-profit companies. They do want to make money. They also genuinely want to keep your kids safe and, of course, avoid lawsuits. Some shorter expiration dates seem overly conservative even to me. Many today have a reasonable lifespan of 8-10 years. Consider that there is simply no way for a manufacturer to know what conditions or abuse a car seat may endure in one year, let alone six years! Yes, individual parts of a car seat may well last much longer than 10 years, maybe even 20-30 years, but the question is how long will ALL the parts together protect a child in a crash? While it’s obvious that they don’t last forever, how long a car seat is usable depends mostly upon the owner.
Consider a rear-facing-only infant seat that was manufactured 6 years ago. Perhaps it sat on the shelf and was sold a year later, being gently used with baby for about a year; then it was stored away in a cool, dry basement for 4 years. Now, baby #2 is on the way but the seat just expired. Must it really be thrown away or recycled, if car seat recycling is even available in your area? Despite the light use, we must officially advise that you still follow the manufacturer’s instructions or contact the manufacturer for guidance.
But what if?
- If you are the only owner or trust the previous owner(s) with the life of your baby
- If the seat is in good working condition with minimal wear and no loose parts
- If the seat was never in a crash, dropped or otherwise damaged
- If cleaners and solvents were never used on the harness system
- If all parts are present and working correctly
- If the manual and labels are all present
- If the seat was approved for use in your country
- If there were no recalls (or any recalls were resolved)
- If the seat was unused in a box at a retailer or stored properly for a long time
- If you are also convinced it will protect your baby in a crash
That’s a lot of “ifs“, and they may also apply as a Used Car Seat Checklist if you are considering a secondhand car seat.
It’s simply impossible for a manufacturer, a certified child passenger safety technician, journalist or online advocate to say if your own car seat or a used car seat meets all these “ifs.” We all advocate for what is safest for your child and there are just too many unknowns with an older car seat that is owned by someone else. Only the owner can decide if all these apply and if they are willing to accept any risk. A secondhand or expired car seat may well be safer than no car seat at all if you absolutely cannot afford a new one and cannot find a free distribution program in your area, but the concerns above are still valid.
As advocates, we always suggest you read and follow the instruction manual and always replace an expired car seat with a new one that likely has the latest features for improved safety. Side impact protection, anti-rebound features, load legs, electronic monitors and tensioning systems for easy installation are among the many features common today that were not as common even 6 years ago. There have also been advances in computer-aided design, materials and crash testing over the years. The IIHS suggests that a new child safety seat is generally the best option. The American Academy of Pediatrics has similar advice.
Car seat manufacturers base expiration dates on additives that determine the lifespan of the plastics and then test the plastic on car seats in a booth-like device for exposure to extreme heat and cold. Other parts of the car seat that you can’t see may have developed rust or cracks over time. Even if you don’t let your child eat or drink in their car seat, flame retardants and dyes can rub off and fabrics can be permanently stained. After even 6 years, that cover will definitely not look fresh and things like vomit or solvents may have degraded the harness as well.
The reality is that under ideal conditions, a parent could reason that their own car seat still has usable life beyond the expiration date and make the choice to use it again. Conditions are rarely ideal, however, because aging and wear is a slow process and there is no magic date when a car seat goes from being safe to unsafe. Damage from a drop or crash may occur suddenly, but may not be visible in some cases.
In other cases, it may seem like a no-brainer to use an expired car seat. Perhaps you bought a “new-in-box” car seat that was stored well but is already expired because it sat in a warehouse somewhere for 6 years. Theoretically, it could be just as safe as the same model manufactured a year or two ago, right? This is a choice a parent would have to make, not something a manufacturer or advocate would ever recommend. Why? Because perhaps that box was a carefully sealed returned item that was involved in a crash and has hidden damage, thus moved to a corner of the warehouse and forgotten. Some things are never certain, and that’s one reason why some car seats have expiration dates that may seem overly conservative.
Yes, you might read that expiration dates are all a big hoax to make us spend more money, create more landfill or overload the global recycling system. Maybe they are. Maybe with a lawn chair, you can risk using it until it fails because the risk of serious injury when it breaks isn’t all that great. On the other hand, the risk to a baby in a car crash is very serious, especially if they are in a car seat that is installed incorrectly, used incorrectly and may have unknown damage that could cause it to fail under the extreme forces in a violent impact.
So, we can’t tell you to use a car seat contrary to instructions or state laws. If someone else does, please carefully consider if they are genuinely concerned for the safety of your baby or if they have some other motivation (like selling a book).