Car safety seats are forever … aren’t they?

You’ve done your research. You’ve checked them out. You’ve found the seat that fits your child, fits your car, and you are ready to use it on each and every trip. Now, just how long can you use this seat? And how will you know it is time to move on to the next one?

Let’s go over a few simple rules to help you know you are using the very best seat in the safest possible way.

Rule #1: The manufacturer is always right.

Every car safety seat has very specific weight and height limits, on both the lower and upper end. It is never OK to use a seat for a child that does not fit within those limits.

Simply put: The seat was tested, and was found to work, for a designated weight and height. Anything else could lead to injury or worse.

Rule #2: Check the date.

Every seat has a sticker or stamp that states the date on which the seat was manufactured. This serves two big purposes. The first is to identify the seat in case of a recall. Manufacturers will frame the recall based on model number (also on the sticker/stamp) and manufacture date. The second is to let you know when the seat has expired and should no longer be used.

Using an expired seat can be more dangerous than eating expired sushi, so it pays to know.

Many seats now also have an expiration date — much like the food in your fridge. Any seat that does not have an expiration date can be assumed to “expire” six years from the date of manufacture. Having worked in child passenger safety since 1997, I have yet to see a moldy car seat — so how can they “expire?” There are two big reasons exist for this.

1) Technology continually produces safer and better seats, and the manufacturers assume that if a seat has been around for six years, then it will not represent the best protection for a child.

2) The seats are subjected to the harshest of temperature fluctuations, from freezing in the winter to broiling in the summer, and this can take a toll on the seat’s components and cause them to slowly degrade. This process is not easily seen on the seat, but tiny defects in the plastic and the harness webbing can lead to increased injury risk to kids in seats, even if the seat is being used properly.

Rule #3: Know the history.

Car safety seats are designed to effectively protect children who fit within the weight and height limitations, and like bike helmets, they must be replaced after a crash.

We would consider a crash significant if:

  1. The car was unable to be driven afterward.
  2. There is damage to the door nearest to the car safety seat.
  3. Any passenger suffered significant injury.
  4. Any of the airbags deployed.
  5. There is any visible damage to the car safety seat.

If any of those things happen, the seat should be replaced. If you are not 100 percent certain that the seat has never been is a crash, then you should not use it. This is why we strongly advise against secondhand seats from consignment stores and flea markets.

Along these lines, if the seat does not have the sticker/stamp with the manufacture date and model number, we cannot know for certain if it has been recalled, or if it is expired.

Take a minute and double-check the weight and height limits, and the manufacture and possible expiration date of your particular seat. Make certain you know the history of your seat as well. If you are not sure, get a new car safety seat that will fit your child and your vehicle. It isn’t worth gambling your child’s life.

If you have questions or need help, please contact the Doernbecher Tom Sargent Children’s Safety Center at 503-418-5666 or at  and we will make sure you have all the information you need!

Ben Hoffman, M.D.
Medical Director
OHSU Doernbecher Tom Sargent Children’s Safety Center
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital