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The complicated truth behind car seat expiration dates

Car seat safety is understandably an obsession for many parents. We want our children to be as safe as possible so we pay close attention to the recommendations of car seat manufacturers, pediatricians and experts. We make sure our child is in the safest seat and position for their size and when our car seats expire we dutifully dispose of them instead of passing them down to our younger children, friends or charities.

Every parent knows that car seats have expiration dates—but why do they? What studies and tests prompted manufacturers and safety advocates to make this rule?

Could we be throwing away tons of perfectly good car seats?

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Those are the questions that journalist Adam Minter set out to uncover while writing his book, Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale. The answers he got didn't satisfy him, and suggest that car seat expiration dates are more about increasing consumption than increasing protection.

A father himself, Minter was well aware of the fact that car seats have expiration dates when, in the course of reporting for Secondhand, he found himself at a used goods outlet in Tucson where secondhand car seats were being sent over the border to Mexico. Concerned that unsafe car seats may be putting children in other countries in danger, Minter decided to dig into the story—but what he uncovered was the opposite of what he thought he was chasing.

"There is no law prohibiting the sale of secondhand car seats post expiration or before," Minter tells Motherly.

There is no law, Minter learned, because there is nothing proving that age alone makes a car seat unsafe.

Minter reached out to numerous car seat manufacturers and retailers expecting that they would be able to point him to a specific study or testing protocol used to determine when and why car seats expire. But he didn't get a clear answer. Most companies did not reply or declined to comment.

He tells Motherly he was stunned that companies that use expiration dates on their products and marketing were unable to substantiate the claim that car seats degrade to the point of being unsafe after six years of existence.

Neither Minter or Motherly could uncover a specific study that is the basis of this rationale. The United States Highway Transportation Safety Administration says there is no regulation prohibiting parents from using an expired car seat, but on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's website, parents are advised "The seat has labels stating date of manufacture and model number. You need this information to find out if there is a recall on the car seat or if the seat is too old."

What could happen if a car seat is "too old?" Well, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's website does not go into detail, but the Government of Canada's website does.

It states that:

"Manufacturers give an expiry or useful life date because over time:

  • Frequent use and exposure to sunlight can damage and weaken plastic;
  • Safe-use labels on the products fade or become hard to read;
  • Instruction manuals have likely been lost;
  • Food, cleaners, drinks and other materials that have been spilled or used on webbing, buckles, adjusters and other parts may prevent them from working safely;
  • The history or condition of the car seat or booster seat becomes hard to check (was it in a crash, was it stored in a place or in a way that caused damage to parts, etc.?);
  • Safety regulations and standards may have changed, so safer products may now be on the market; and
  • Second or subsequent owners may not get product safety recall notices if problems arise."

There is research to backup the first point. Exposure to sunlight can indeed damage plastic, but neither Minter nor Motherly were able to find any research that specifically looked at car seats, and how the plastic used in them might degrade when subjected to standard use in vehicles.

"We should actually have data available on the relative safety or unsafety of a secondhand car seat that, say sat in a car for 5 years in sunlight and one that's totally new. And yet, if [manufacturers have] done those tests, for whatever reason, they're not willing to disclose them," Minter tells Motherly.

As for the rest of the Canadian list, the reasons listed do not apply to every car seat or situation. A family that is considering reusing their own car seat for a second or third child would know if it has ever been in a collision and how it was stored. The parents would know how often the car seat was cleaned and would either have the instruction manual or access to an online version.

As we've noted, government agencies in the United States and Canada do discourage parents from using expired car seats, and in these countries it is common for used car seats to be shredded or sent to the landfill, expired or not. But in some other countries, the use of used car seats is viewed as perfectly acceptable and is actually encouraged.

Sweden has a remarkably low rate of child fatalities related to vehicles. The country is very seriously trying to reduce the rate to zero, and yet the director of traffic safety and sustainability at the Swedish Transport Administration, Maria Krafft, has publicly stated that used car seats are fine to use.

Krafft put Minter in contact with Professor Anders Kullgren of the Karolinska Institutet and the Chalmers University of Technology, who replied: "We have the same experience in Sweden. Manufacturers of child restraints (and other safety equipment such as bicycle and motorcycle helmets) tell their customers to buy a new product after a certain period of time, often relatively short. We can't see any evidence to justify that from what we have seen in real-world crashes."

Kullgren went on to say that he has access to car seats that are over 20 years old and has not seen any degradation in the plastic.

Bottom line:

In an era when parents are extremely concerned about reducing consumption and carbon footprints, should so many car seats be thrown away, especially when there are parents struggling to afford car seats in the first place?

Perhaps it is time for parents to consider not throwing away or recycling their car seats, but passing them on to another parent. Minter was initially worried about the safety of children when he saw used American seats headed to Mexico, but now he is worried about the saftey of children who would be safer in an inexpensive secondhand seat than none at all.

[Motherly has contacted government agencies, retailers and car seat manufacturers and will update our coverage when more information is available.]

When I was expecting my first child, I wanted to know everything that could possibly be in store for his first year.

I quizzed my own mom and the friends who ventured into motherhood before I did. I absorbed parenting books and articles like a sponge. I signed up for classes on childbirth, breastfeeding and even baby-led weaning. My philosophy? The more I knew, the better.

Yet, despite my best efforts, I didn't know it all. Not by a long shot. Instead, my firstborn, my husband and I had to figure it out together—day by day, challenge by challenge, triumph by triumph.

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The funny thing is that although I wanted to know it all, the surprises—those moments that were unique to us—were what made that first year so beautiful.

Of course, my research provided a helpful outline as I graduated from never having changed a diaper to conquering the newborn haze, my return to work, the milestones and the challenges. But while I did need much of that tactical knowledge, I also learned the value of following my baby's lead and trusting my gut.

I realized the importance of advice from fellow mamas, too. I vividly remember a conversation with a friend who had her first child shortly before I welcomed mine. My friend, who had already returned to work after maternity leave, encouraged me to be patient when introducing a bottle and to help my son get comfortable with taking that bottle from someone else.

Yes, from a logistical standpoint, that's great advice for any working mama. But I also took an incredibly important point from this conversation: This was less about the act of bottle-feeding itself, and more about what it represented for my peace of mind when I was away from my son.

This fellow mama encouraged me to honor my emotions and give myself permission to do what was best for my family—and that really set the tone for my whole approach to parenting. Because honestly, that was just the first of many big transitions during that first year, and each of them came with their own set of mixed emotions.

I felt proud and also strangely nostalgic as my baby seamlessly graduated to a sippy bottle.

I felt my baby's teething pain along with him and also felt confident that we could get through it with the right tools.

I felt relieved as my baby learned to self-soothe by finding his own pacifier and also sad to realize how quickly he was becoming his own person.



As I look back on everything now, some four years and two more kids later, I can't remember the exact day my son crawled, the project I tackled on my first day back at work, or even what his first word was. (It's written somewhere in a baby book!)

But I do remember how I felt with each milestone: the joy, the overwhelming love, the anxiety, the exhaustion and the sense of wonder. That truly was the greatest gift of the first year… and nothing could have prepared me for all those feelings.

This article was sponsored by Dr. Brown's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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As a mom of three, I frequently get a question from moms and dads of two children: “Ok, so the jump to three...how bad is it?"

Personally, I found the transition to having even one kid to be the most jarring. Who is this little person who cries nonstop (mine had colic) and has no regard for when I feel like sitting/eating/resting/sleeping?

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