When you started shopping for gear for your first baby, you probably placed the big-ticket items at the top of your list: the stroller, the crib or bassinet, and of course — the all-important car seat.

So important is this last item that many labor and delivery units even check your car seat before they let you go home with your sweet bundle of joy.

You check the latest car seat guidelines and recommendations, make sure your desired seat will properly fit your car and your needs, and make the purchase — sometimes spending upwards of $200 or $300. Ouch! (But well worth it to keep your precious cargo safe.)

So it makes sense to wonder: When baby #2 comes along, can you reuse your old car seat? Or if your friend offers you a seat their child has outgrown, can you use that? The short answer is maybe, maybe not — because car seats have expiration dates.

This comes as a surprise to many parents (it’s not like purchasing a dozen eggs or a loaf of bread, after all!), but car seats expire for good reason. Let’s take a closer look.

There are actually a few reasons why car seats expire, and no, car seat manufacturers wanting to inconvenience you isn’t one of them.

1. Wear and tear

Your car seat may be one of the most-used pieces of baby gear you own, perhaps rivaled only by the crib. With each supermarket, day care, or play date run, you’re likely buckling and unbuckling your baby numerous times.

You’ll also find yourself adjusting the seat as your little one grows, cleaning up messes and spills as best you can, and cringing as your tiny teether chews on straps or bangs on cupholders.

If you live in an area with extreme temperatures, your seat may also bake in the sun while your car is parked and get tiny cracks in the plastic that you can’t even see.

All of this takes a toll on the fabric and parts of a car seat, so it stands to reason that the seat — designed to keep your child safe — won’t last forever. And without a doubt, you want to make your child’s safety remains intact.

2. Changing regulations and standards

Transportation agencies, professional medical associations (like the American Academy of Pediatrics), and car seat manufacturers are constantly conducting and evaluating safety and crash tests. This is a good thing for parents everywhere.

Also, technology is forever evolving. (Don’t we know it. Why is our two-year-old laptop already outdated?!) This means that car seat safety stats can be improved with as new features, materials, or technologies are introduced.

Say you buy a car seat that is rear-facing and will hold your child up to a certain weight, but then the weight guidelines change for a rear-facing seat. It may not be the law that you have to replace your seat, but the manufacturer may discontinue it and stop making replacement parts — not to mention, you no longer have the safest seat possible for your little one.

An expiration date may account for these changes and makes it less likely that you’ll have a seat that’s not up to snuff.

3. Manufacturer testing has its limits

When a manufacturer — be it Graco, Britax, Chicco, or any number of other car seat brands — tests a car seat, they don’t assume you’ll still be cramming your 17-year-old in it and driving them to their senior prom. So it stands to reason that they don’t test car seats to see how they hold up after 17 years of use.

Even all-in-one car seats — ones that transform from rear-facing to forward-facing to boosters — have weight or age limits, and car seat and booster use generally ends by age 12 (depending on child’s size). So car seats aren’t usually tested beyond about 10–12 years of use.

4. Recalls

In an ideal world, you’ll register your car seat as soon as you buy it so the manufacturer can let you know of any product recalls. In the real world, you’re up to your eyeballs in all things newborn related — not to mention sleep deprived. You may indeed be using a (recent and unexpired) hand-me-down car seat with no registration card in sight.

So expiration dates ensure that even if you miss a recall announcement, you’ll have a relatively up-to-date car seat that is more likely to be free of problems.

A note on used car seats

Before you purchase a car seat from a yard sale or borrow one from a friend, check for a recall via the manufacturer’s website. Safe Kids also maintains an ongoing list.

Note also that a used car seat may be less safe than a new one. A used car seat or booster is generally not recommended unless you can be absolutely sure it hasn’t been through an accident.

There’s no universal answer to this, but we’ll give it our best shot: Generally, car seats expire between 6 and 10 years after the date of manufacture. Manufacturers such as Britax and Graco publish this on their websites.

No, it doesn’t suddenly become illegal to use a car seat at 10 years and 1 day after it was made, and there won’t be a warrant out for your arrest. But we know that you’d do anything to keep your sweet babe safe, and that’s why it’s recommended that you replace your car seat once it expires.

Looking for information about when your specific car seat expires? The best place to check is the manufacturer’s website. Most brands have a page dedicated to safety information where they tell you how to find the expiration date.

For example:

  • Graco shares that its products have expiration dates on the bottom or back of the seat.
  • Britax tells users to find the date of manufacture — by using the serial number and instruction manual — and then provides expiration dates based on when different types of seats were made.
  • Chicco provides an expiration date on the seat and the base.
  • Baby Trend gives an expiration date for its car seats as 6 years post-manufacture. You can find the manufacture date on the underside of the car seat or the bottom of the base.
  • Evenflo car seats have a date of manufacture (DOM) label. Most models expire 6 years after this date, but the Symphony line lasts for 8 years.

You don’t want anyone else using your expired car seat, so taking it to Goodwill or throwing it in the dumpster as is aren’t good options.

Most manufacturers recommend cutting the straps, slicing the seat itself, and/or writing on the seat with a permanent marker (“DO NOT USE – EXPIRED”) before disposal.

Truth be told, if you also want to take a baseball bat to your car seat and let out some pent-up aggression in a safe environment… we won’t tell.

Baby stores and big-box retailers (think Target and Walmart) often have car seat recycling or trade-in programs, so keep an eye out or call your local store to ask about their policy.

It’s tempting to be cynical and believe that car seat expiration dates exist to support a billion-dollar baby gear industry wanting to get more money out of you. But actually, there are important safety reasons behind limiting the life of your car seat.

While this doesn’t mean you can’t take your sister’s car seat when your nephew outgrows it — or use baby #1’s car seat for baby #2 a couple years later — it does mean that there’s a certain time frame within which this is OK. Check your seat’s expiration date by looking at its label, usually at the bottom or back to the seat.

We recommend registering your car seat as well — and carefully following installation instructions to avoid compromising the safety of the seat. After all, your baby is the most precious cargo your vehicle will ever transport.