Most parents are surprised to find out their children’s car seats expire. We’re all used to expiry dates being a “thing” on items we consume, but our children’s car seats? That’s a new one!
In the interest of safety, parents need to be aware of not only proper car seat usage, but also timeliness. After all, the materials car seat manufacturers use to design these products don’t last forever.
Therefore, it’s critical to explore car seat expiration dates, how long car seats are actually good for, what tell-tale signs you should look out for, where to go for more information if you’re unsure whether or not yours is still good, as well as what you should do with your baby’s car seat after it expires.
In this article, we’ll look at all of this and more.
Do Car Seats Expire? And If So, Why?
The short answer is yes; car seats do expire. But the explanation is a bit more complicated than you might expect.
First things first, this is no reason to panic. Your car seat won’t suddenly turn to dust when the expiration date hits, and it often doesn’t come down to a specific day as far as expiry dates are concerned.
Infant and child car seats expire because materials, laws, and a whole lot more can change in just a few years.
Here’s more on why (and how) car seats expire.
Materials Change Over Time
Although you may not have found a steel-frame car seat on store shelves in the ‘90s, by the 2000s, manufacturers like Diono (formerly Sunshine Kids) and Britax (among others) have steel frames to help stabilize your child and protect against crash impact.
Of course, steel is not necessarily a requirement for car seats on the shelves today, but the use of this tough material shows a commitment to using effective and safe components in our children’s car seats.
As new construction methods and materials come out year after year, we’ll see even more changes in car seat construction.
New Equipment Comes Out
While kids in the US in the 1990s may have used booster seats with bulky lap latches and no backs, today’s child restraint systems use a variety of both comfort and safety features.
Here’s a list that discusses a few improvements made on car seats in recent years, explaining the need for the expiration of outdated seats in favor of safer (and often easier) types of child restraints.
Although not everyone’s familiar with it because it’s still a relatively new technology for most parents, LATCH systems have been around since the ‘90s.
In the year 1999, federal rules required new vehicles to have LATCH equipment, and new car seats had to have them as standard equipment by 2002.
LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, and involves both lower anchors to hold the child seat in the vehicle and a top tether to reduce tipping in the event of a crash.
For parents, this system makes it easier to install and remove car seats from the vehicle, especially with newer push-button types of latches.
Unfortunately, incorrect installation of car seats is a tremendous contributing factor to infant and child mortality in vehicle accidents—and an average of 46 percent of child safety seats are incorrectly installed or otherwise misused.
LATCH addresses multiple safety issues at once, giving kids better odds of walking away from a potential accident.
Anti-rebound bars are another piece of car seat safety equipment emerging on the scene.
While not all car seats feature these bars, manufacturers such as Britax explain the purpose of including them on newer restraints.
An anti-rebound bar, Britax notes, works to reduce rebound movement in the event of a crash. While the car seat keeps your child restrained during the initial crash force, the rebound movement takes place afterward and can cause further injury.
Britax’s bar, for example, minimizes rotation by 40 percent, helping divert crash energy away from your child.
We’re Always Learning More About Safety
Think about your personal experiences with car seats—if you’re 30 or older, you may not have used a car seat at all as a child. If you did use one, it definitely wouldn’t be an acceptable (or safe) form of child restraint today!
Part of the reason for car seat expiration is to phase out older seats and replace them with newer technology.
After all, manufacturers are constantly tweaking their designs, performing safety tests, and analyzing results from crash test dummies to determine what works and what doesn’t. Then, they take what does work and aim to make it work better.
While all child restraints on the market today have to meet minimum specifications for their respective market (whether in the United States or elsewhere), the minimums change all the time.
You wouldn’t want to drive a car from the ‘40s when there are newer models with seatbelts, airbags, and anti-lock brakes, right? It’s the same with car seats: the newer models have improvements over previous lines and versions, making them safer and more effective than ever.
And things will keep changing as time goes on and research improves, too. For example, while the federal minimum is for infants to weigh 20 pounds and be one year old before turning forward facing in the car, many states have passed legislation requiring children to rear face longer.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), for example, recommends rear facing children as long as possible—at least three years or to the height and weight limits of your car seat.
Manufacturers Make Improvements
When you’ve been a parent long enough to have tried out a few different car seats, it soon becomes apparent that not every car seat fits every child!
As frustrating as this can be for parents who are shopping for a safe restraint, manufacturers can – and do – make improvements over time.
And while comfort and convenience are factors these brands consider (because you can never have enough cupholders or padding), safety is just as crucial – if not more important.
For example, newer versions of consumer-favorite car seats often include additional features like side impact protection, a wider seat to accommodate larger children, or increased height limits to keep kids in a five-point harness as they grow.
Daily Use Causes Damage
If you consider where your car seat goes and all the functions it performs, it’s easy to see why these safety devices expire!
From the shell of the seat itself to the padding, straps, and base, there’s a lot going on in your car.
Temperature Changes (And Spills) Change Things
Your child may get in and out of the car seat multiple times per day, they may spill liquids on it, it might get jostled, and it’s subjected to extreme temperature fluctuations.
If your car seat stays in your vehicle—or even gets swapped between vehicles or left on the porch for extended periods—it experiences all four seasons, but with more significant variations in temperature highs and lows.
Even car seats with a steel frame still include plastic and other components. Extreme changes in temperature can cause the materials to become brittle, and even the most highly engineered foams and plastics eventually break down.
Daily Wear and Tear Affects Harnesses
Also, consider the safety harness in your child’s seat. For infant carrier and five-point harness seats – buckling and unbuckling, tightening and loosening, and rethreading the harness (to accommodate your child’s growth) can cause damage to the material.
To get a better idea about what we mean, imagine the stress your seatbelt undergoes, and then multiply it by hundreds – if not more!
Plus, if you have a convertible car seat which switches from a rear-facing infant seat to a forward-facing toddler seat (and possibly even to a booster seat), moving the straps around even more can cause additional stress in specific points.
Although manufacturers often give replacements if your child’s safety harness fails before the seat’s life expectancy is up, it’s not something most parents want to leave to chance.
How Can I Tell When A Car Seat Expires?
It’s one thing to acknowledge your car seat has an expiration date, but it’s another mission to find out when it actually expires and where you need to turn for information.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to tell whether your seat has expired, and where to look for more details if you’re unsure.
Where to Find the Car Seat Expiration Date
Ideally, you’re using a car seat for your infant or child which you’ve purchased brand new – not something you’ve purchased second-hand or was passed on to you from a friend or family member.
In general, it’s not a good idea to use a borrowed or used seat, since there’s no way of knowing for sure whether it’s been in an accident before.
Even if a seat was only involved in a minor crash, it may be unsafe for your child to use—so it’s essential to purchase a new one whenever possible.
On a New Car Seat
If you bought your child’s seat new, the expiration date will be included in the user manual or on other paperwork which came with the seat.
Most manufacturers supply a warranty card for you to send to them after purchase—this allows them to contact you if there’s a recall or any other issue with your seat.
Your half of the warranty card often has the seat name, expiration date, and serial number for reference.
On A Used Car Seat
If you purchased a used seat or were given one by a trusted friend or family member—or you’re using your older child’s seat for a sibling—you may not have the original paperwork to reference.
But in most cases, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Most car seats have a label either on the base of the product or somewhere along the side or back with the model information, serial number, and expiration date.
The expiration date typically notes a month and year in which the car seat expires, after which you should discard the seat safely (which we’ll discuss in depth in a section below).
Help! I Can’t Find an Expiration Date!
If you have a seat without a label anywhere on it—maybe the label was lost at some point for one too many possible reasons—make sure to check all the sides and bottom of the car seat.
Some seats have engraving in the plastic instead of a stick-on label, which ensures the information won’t get lost.
If you still can’t find an expiration date anywhere on there, a good rule of thumb is to get rid of the car seat after six years. In general, car seat manufacturers state six years as a minimum on all varieties of seats.
However, some brands of car seats are good for eight or even ten years in certain circumstances, so it helps to do a little digging and at least verify what brand and model seat you have.
When in doubt, though, six years is a smart cutoff to replace your seat at, in case you don’t have any of the product information handy to refer to.
How Long Are Car Seats Good For?
As mentioned above, a general rule of thumb in the United States is that most seats have a lifespan of six years.
However, in recent years, some manufacturers have extended the lives of their car seats, thanks to changes in the construction process.
Therefore, some seats have a longevity of up to 12 years nowadays, depending on how you’re using the seat and what type of configurations it has.
The following are a few examples for you to refer to:
Example #1: Some Diono US car seats (Radian, Rainier, Pacifica, Olympia) are approved for use in harness mode for eight years, but up to ten years in booster mode.
Example #2: Many Britax car seats have a lifespan of six years (belt-positioning booster seats and infant car seats, for example), but the Frontier Harness-2-Booster seat (manufactured from 2008-2010) has a nine-year service life.
Their ClickTight Convertible seats are good for ten years, and most convertible car seats are good for seven. Of course, always check your seat’s manual for specifics, and contact the brand if you have questions!
Example #4: All Graco seats last either seven or ten years, depending on the model.
Many other, newer brands emerging in the child safety restraint industry may have different standards, however, so it’s always worth investigating any seat you plan to purchase beforehand.
What to Do When Your Car Seat Expires
Although many parents are tempted to just throw their old car seats out in the trash when they expire, it’s not recommended to do so.
First, many areas have rules about what items can be put in trash cans or sent for recycling.
Second, leaving your expired car seat intact and placing it in a dumpster means someone may come along and take it, thinking that since it still looks good, it must still be safe to use.
Instead, here’s how to handle discarding your expired car seat.
Throw it Away—Properly
To properly throw away your car seat, follow these steps.
- Remove the webbing (the harness and its buckles/etc) and cut it so it cannot be reused.
- Remove the seat cover and cut it so it cannot be put back on the seat.
- Take off or black out/cut the serial number and the manufacture date of the seat.
- Write “EXPIRED! DO NOT USE!” on the shell of the seat itself. Many parents opt to use a Sharpie for this, but you could also use spray paint or any other permanent solution.
- Place the seat at the curb for collection. However, it may be worth contacting your local trash municipality to make sure they accept curb pickup of car seats. Otherwise, you may need to take it to the dump yourself.
Trade it In
Many retailers offer car seat trade-in programs where consumers can bring in any car seat—expired or otherwise—and receive credit toward a new seat in a specific store.
For example, Clek’s recycling program (noted above) requires consumers to purchase a shipping label to return their seats. However, you receive the investment back in the form of store credit.
Other trade-in programs include Babies R Us, which typically schedules their car-seat buyback events yearly. Target also has a similar car seat credit program which runs for a limited time each year.
Of course, other smaller retailers or even consignment shops in your area may offer a similar program, so it’s always worth asking about this when you’re shopping.
What Not to Do with an Expired Seat
Now that we’ve covered what you should do when your car seat expires, let’s look at what not to do with your expired seat.
There are many misconceptions about car seat expiration nowadays, which can potentially be very dangerous for families.
Don’t Keep Using It
Overall, once your car seat has expired, it’s unsafe to continue using it – per the manufacturer.
So, if your child has not reached the limits of the seat—whether by weight or height—you’ll first need to find and purchase a suitable replacement.
Obviously enough, using an expired seat for as long as it takes you to get a new one is preferable to not using a seat at all, even though both are not safe practices.
Don’t Skip A Seat Entirely
Also, just because your child’s seat expires doesn’t mean they no longer need a seat, even if they were using the seat in booster mode.
Children need to stay in a booster seat until they safely fit in the vehicle seat without one.
They must have the seatbelt snug across their hips, have the shoulder belt snug across their shoulder (not their face or neck), and be able to sit up properly for the whole ride.
Don’t Pass It On
Of course, once the seat is expired, this means you also shouldn’t pass it along to any one else. Not re-selling it, not donating it to another family in need, not passing it on to any friend or family member either.
Too many families pick up car seats at thrift stores or consignment shops without recognizing whether they’re expired or not, and this isn’t safe.
Wrapping it Up
It can be frustrating to realize you’ve spent a hundred dollars (or oftentimes a lot more than that) on a child safety seat for your infant, only to find out it won’t last until they’re out of a car seat completely.
But, there’s a reason for car seat expiration rules: our children’s safety!
As methods and materials improve and change even further in the car seat manufacturing industry, you can be sure there will be even more updates to car seat safety standards as time passes.
Isn’t that what we’re all here for, anyways? To do whatever we can do to ensure our little ones are as safe as possible?
Whatever changes come, keeping our kids safe is – and should always be – everyone’s top priority!