Car seats are one of the biggest and most important investments new parents will make — big in terms of financial investment, but more importantly because they can be life-saving in the event of a car crash. The good news is, they’re a one-time investment. Or are they? Turns out that car seats, much like Tylenol, milk, and other parenting mainstays, have expiration dates. While they won’t spoil in the same way that milk will, they also don’t last forever, and it’s important to know just when your car seat expiration date is.
Why Do Car Seats Expire?
How can a piece of plastic, metal, and fabric expire? Car seat expiration dates exist for three main reasons: changes in technology, the advancement of safety innovations, and changes in regulation, says Laura Dunn, an expert in child passenger safety at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Most manufacturers give their car seats expiration dates of 6 to 10 years after they’re made, at which point a car seat could, at best, have outdated technology, and at worst, no longer meet the safety standards of the seats on the market. “The industry is fast-moving and really evolving all the time,” Dunn says. For example, recent years have seen new innovations in side impact protection that older seats lack.
You may have heard that expiration dates guard against the deterioration of a car seat’s plastic shell, the idea being that as a car seat weathers the high and low temperatures that cars are subjected to, it slowly breaks down. But Dunn says that’s an untested theory. Nevertheless, while there’s no data to support the theory that car seats deteriorate this quickly, the NHTSA does recommend that car seats be stored in a climate-controlled environment when not in use, like an indoor closet, as opposed to a shed or an attic where temperatures might be more extreme.
Where Is the Expiration Date?
While car seat expiration dates aren’t federally mandated, they’ve become industry standard, Dunn says. Parents can find the expiration date on a sticker found on the side of the seat, on its plastic shell. In the rare case that a car seat doesn’t have an expiration date, look for the date of manufacture, which is required by law. The NHTSA recommends replacing car seats within six years of the manufacture date.
“If the car seat is expired, you should not be using it. Replace it right away,” says Gina P. Duchossois, an injury prevention expert with the Injury Prevention Program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Chair of Safe Kids Southeastern Pennsylvania. In fact, Duchossois goes so far as to suggest that parents cut the straps of an expired car seat and dispose of it in a dark plastic bag so that nobody takes it out of the garbage and uses it.
Is It OK to Use an Expired Car Seat?
If a car seat expires when a kid only has a few months left using it, parents may be tempted to buy a secondhand one or take an old seat from someone they know. But both Dunn and Duchossois warn against using car seats that you don’t know the history of. Besides not being able to tell if it’s expired, secondhand car seats can be dangerous if they were involved in a car accident. “Damage can occur to seats that we can’t see with the naked eye,” Dunn says.
That being said, “Some parents or caregivers, when they determine that their seat is expired, may not be able to run out and purchase a brand-new one,” Dunn says. “A secondhand seat from a trusted source that knows the history is an option.” In that case, Dunn suggest parents make sure the seat has its model number, date of manufacture, all of its labels, its manual, and has nothing missing and hasn’t expired, been recalled, or been involved in a crash. The NHTSA has a searchable registry of recalls, as well as a checklist for determining whether a car seat that was involved in a car crash is safe to use. When in doubt, parents should call the manufacturer directly.
While a car seat isn’t going to radically change on the day after it expires, it has become, by that point, less safe, and parents should replace it as soon as possible — preferably with a brand-new one. Whatever you do, just remember the most important thing, which is to use a carseat, no matter what. “It’s important,” says Dunn, “that kids are riding in any seat versus no seat at all.”