Have you ever looked at a car seat and wondered why the heck it has an expiration date? This big hunk of plastic doesn’t seem like it would “go bad,” right? But just like old dairy, there’s going to be a time when the life of your child’s car seat will end.
But when exactly is that? Is the expiration date really important? We’re going to go over everything you need to know about car seat expiration dates and what to look for.
Why Do Car Seats Expire?
When it comes to car seat expiration dates, it’s much simpler to just brush it off like it isn’t a big deal. However, the expiration date is there for a reason. And no, it’s not just so companies can squeeze more money out of your pocket.
As odd as it may seem, car seats expire for a number of reasons. There are a few factors in particular that are instrumental in determining that date: the exposure of materials to hot and cold weather, everyday wear and tear, and more (1).
Car seat manufacturers are constantly upgrading their seats, in line with the newest standards. This also plays into why expiration dates exist.
1. Temperature Exposure and Natural Breakdown
Most car seats are made from a plastic shell. Plastic expands and contracts when exposed to hot and cold temperatures. Because the seat will stay in the car most of the time, it’s constantly being exposed to varying temperatures.
Another factor is the metal in the car seat and unseen rust. Most frames are made of steel or other metal. If that rusts, you can imagine what happens to it in the event of an accident.
Of course, these aren’t things you can control and this is exactly why car seat manufacturers give you these dates. It provides an idea of how long the seat will last and around the time you should start looking for a new one.
2. Regular Wear and Tear
Let’s face it: car seats really take a beating. Kids are messy and spills are inevitable no matter how “strict” your rule is about food and drinks in the car. Crumbs and fluids like drool or juice can cause the seat’s webbing to deteriorate over time (2).
To get the most out of your child’s car seat, make sure to regularly clean and maintain it. Personally, we make a habit to clean out our family car once a week. During this time, we clean the car seat padding as well.
If there’s a spill, we always make a point to wipe it up right away, but the seat still needs a good, regular clean. Here are the steps we go through to keep the car seat clean:
- Remove the seat from the car: This may seem like a hassle, but it’s the only way to make sure the entire area is clean.
- Remove seat padding: This gets thrown in the washer during weekly laundry duty. Read your car seat’s manual to ensure that machine washing is permitted.
- Wipe down the seat: We use mild soap, water, and a washcloth. This just assures we pick up any stray crumbs or sticky residue.
- Wipe out the cup holders: If I’m being honest, our car seat cup holders get pretty gross. Whether it’s a spilled drink or the crushed up remains of a pine cone, it builds up. You can use the same washcloth from above.
- Wipe down the harness and buckles: This is important to prevent anything from sticking inside the buckle. This can be done simply with a damp washcloth, no soap needed.
- Let it dry completely: Before putting the seat pads back on, let the seat dry completely to prevent any mold or other wear and tear. You can dry it with a towel or let it air dry. We usually do a quick dry-off with a towel and then leave it to air dry until the pad is done.
Letting your car seat padding lay in the sunlight not only helps it dry, but also helps to eliminate stubborn smells.
Editor's Note:Kristen Gardiner, CPST
3. Safety Guidelines
As mentioned above, in order to keep up with changing guidelines, car seat manufacturers tweak their products regularly. This means they may retire a certain seat out of production.
Once seats are retired, it gets harder to find replacement parts if something goes wrong.
If you do get lucky enough to find a replacement part, who’s to say you’ll be able to fix it correctly?
Older seats may come with outdated technology or may not have the most current safety features. In order to ensure your baby is completely safe, car seat manufacturers are constantly adding new technology to keep up.
- Overall Improvements: Car seat manufacturers strive to make car seats easier to install and use to help reduce user error. This is important because if car seats are not installed correctly, they can’t do their job to protect your child. In recent years, features like premium LATCH connectors and no-rethread harnesses are becoming much more common.
- Smartphone adaptable: Some car seats are being made with smartphone adaptability that will alert you when you leave your baby in the car. While this may seem crazy to some, it’s another layer of safety to protect your little ones.
- Patented technology: Car seat manufacturers are constantly innovating new ways to keep your child safe. Whether it’s better side-impact protection or shock absorption, car seat tech is changing regularly.
Those are just a few reasons why it’s vital to pay attention to car seat expiration dates. We’re all about getting the biggest bang for your buck, but this is an expense that our family doesn’t mess around with.
The Importance of a Safe Car Seat
We get it, kids can get pretty expensive. Talking about buying a new car seat can certainly give any budgeter a bout of panic. As tough as it may be to look at the price tags on car seats, this expense is a necessary one.
In the United States, motor vehicle accidents are a leading cause of death in children (3). The proper use of car seats has shown that car crash injury risk is reduced by 71 to 82 percent for the youngest among us.
Be sure to adhere to any height and weight guidelines to ensure your child will be properly protected in the event of a crash. In rear-facing car seats, when the top of your child’s head is less than one inch below the top of the headrest it’s usually time to upgrade. In forward-facing car seats, you’ll want to watch for when the top of their ears are reaching the top of the headrest. Always check your manual.
How to Find out the Expiration Date
Regardless of the brand, you should be able to find an expiration date right on the back of the seat. Some manufacturers may also include the expiration date inside the instruction manual. The date is typically printed on a sticker or is embossed on the back of your child’s car seat.
Car seat expiration dates will vary but typically range from six to 10 years (4). Keep in mind, though, you shouldn’t wait until the day of expiration to grab a new seat for your child. We recommend starting to shop for a new one a month or so before the seat is due to expire.
Are Used Car Seats Okay?
Say you’re scrolling through Facebook Marketplace and you see someone advertising a car seat for sale. You’re actually in the market for one and they’re offering it for super cheap. You may be tempted to inquire about it, but are secondhand car seats safe to use?
Experts don’t recommend it because you don’t know what the seat has been through. Sometimes it’s impossible to tell just by looking at a car seat whether it’s been in a crash or whether it’s been cleaned or maintained properly.
Sellers may advertise the car seat as never having been in an accident or “gently used,” but that may not be the truth. Unless you know and genuinely trust the person you’re getting the car seat from, it’s safest to just buy new (5).
What to Do with an Expired Seat
Once your child’s car seat is expired, you have a few options. And no, you don’t necessarily have to toss it in the trash. Here are some of the most common ways to dispose of an expired seat:
- Trade it in: Big box stores like Target will typically hold “trade-in” events throughout the year. You can take in your expired or unusable seat and trade it in for a discount on a newer seat. Many times the old seats are then recycled.
- Give to car seat techs for demonstrations: In order for car seat technicians to give demonstrations, they need a seat to work with. Expired seats can come in handy for this as long as they’re intact.
- Recycle if able: Because seats are mostly plastic, they should be able to be broken down for recycling. You may or may not have a recycling facility near you that accepts car seats (find a facility here). Make sure the plastic is clean and free of unrecyclable materials beforehand.
- Break down for trash if unrecyclable: If your child’s seat is in bad shape, it may be best to just pitch it. Write “expired” in permanent marker on your seat and cut the harness straps before you throw it out to make sure no one grabs it to re-use.
Time for a New Car Seat?
Now that you’ve learned what that date on the car seat means, it may be time to start looking for a new one. Even if you feel tempted to wait it out for the next babe, don’t.
Unless your current car seat is still in great shape with years left before expiration, passing it down isn’t the best idea. There are plenty of options if you aren’t sure what to do with the seat, but we’d go for a trade-in event if possible. This way, you can score a good deal on a new seat for your child.