Are Used Car Seats Safe for Your Baby?

Car Seat Yard Sale

David Sacks / Getty Images

Putting your newborn in a safe car seat is an important part of taking care of your baby. While buying a new car seat is an option, many parents wonder whether it's OK to get a used one from a garage sale or an online auction or borrow one from a friend or family member.

While a used car seat might save money, it could also compromise safety. Most often, experts recommend buying a new car seat, due to potential safety issues with used car seats. However, if you're considering a used car seat, confirming a variety of important details can make using one safer. Learn more about the safety concerns of using used car seats and how to know if the one you're considering using is safe.

Why New Car Seats Are Safer

You can save a lot of money on baby items by buying used. However, when it comes to car seats, it's much better to stick with new ones. From a financial perspective, purchasing a used car seat might save you a few dollars upfront, but in the long run, you might have to replace it sooner than you would if you purchased a new one.

Additionally, you want your car seat to be as safe as possible for your little one. A used car seat may have expired, been recalled, have missing or broken pieces, or have been involved in a crash. That's why child safety experts say it's ideal to buy a new car seat over a used one, if possible. Plus, there are ways to find inexpensive or even free car seats.

A car seat's primary job is to keep your child safe when they are riding in a car. With a used car seat with an unknown history, you can't be sure that it will fully protect your child.

Newer Models Feature Improvements

Another benefit of purchasing a new car seat is that manufacturers are continually improving their safety features as well as making design improvements. Because your car seat is holding precious cargo, you want to ensure you are using a car seat that is as safe and sturdy as possible. However, note that just because a car seat is more expensive or has added features, that doesn't mean it's safer.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "No one seat is the 'best' or 'safest.' The best seat is the one that fits your child's size, is correctly installed, fits well in your vehicle, and is used properly every time you drive."

Safety Considerations for Used Car Seats

While a new car seat is typically the safest option, that doesn't mean a used car seat can't be a reasonable alternative. This is particularly true if the car seat has only been lightly used and is still relatively new. If you are thinking about buying or borrowing a used car seat for your child, ensure that it meets the following safety standards.

Age and Expiration

Do not buy a used car seat unless you can verify the age of the seat. There should be a manufacturer's label on the back or bottom of the seat that gives the manufacture date. Also, all car seats and boosters have expiration dates. Sometimes these are found on the same sticker that has the date of manufacture. Other times you need to read the instruction manual to see how many years after the date of manufacture the seat expires.

Although there are no set government rules on these dates, manufacturers establish expiration dates based on safety testing and typical use. Car seats also must adhere to regularly changing safety regulations provided by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the National Highway Traffic and Safety Association (NHTSA).

The typical lifespan of a car seat or booster seat is six to 10 years. But for every seat, you need to check the expiration date for that particular seat. Don't assume that because it's less than six years old, it's not expired.

If you're not sure about the expiration date, check the instruction manual or call the manufacturer. By law, the date of manufacture and the manufacturer's contact information must be on one of the seat labels. If these labels are missing from the car seat, it's best not to use it. These labels give important model information that would alert you to potential recalls. Also, always check if a seat is under recall.

How long a car seat was in storage or the temperature of the storage location does not affect the expiration date. So even if it was never used, if a seat is past its expiration date, it may not be safe.

Original Parts and Manual

It's also crucial to determine whether a used car seat still has all of the original parts needed for proper function, as it's common for some parts to be lost over time. For example, a harness on a combination seat may have been removed when the child outgrew it and was later replaced without a small piece that affects the function of the harness in a crash.

Along with the original required parts, make sure that you have a copy of the instruction manual, which is a must for ensuring correct installation. Note that you don't need a paper copy. Almost every manufacturer's website has PDFs of instruction manuals available for free download.

Crash History

It's also key to find out the crash history of the seat. This means whether it was ever involved in an accident. This is important because car seat manufacturers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have replacement criteria for whether or not the car seat is still safe to use after a crash.

Some car seat manufacturers say to replace the car seat after any crash, period. NHTSA and other manufacturers base the decision on things like whether or not there were injuries, whether the vehicle airbags deployed, or how close the point of impact was to the car seat. At a minimum, if the car seat has been in a moderate or severe crash, it should not be used again.

If a friend or family member is passing on a car seat to you, you can likely feel confident about whether or not it was ever in a car crash that requires disposing of the car seat. However, it's often difficult to gather those details from strangers when buying a used car seat. Even car seats involved in fairly serious crashes may not show outward signs of damage, but that doesn't mean they're still safe to use.

Wear and Tear

Just like your baby's crib, a car seat is probably one of the most used pieces of baby equipment. This means the straps are going to be buckled and unbuckled and the car seat installed and uninstalled quite a bit. Eventually, parts can break, straps can fray, or pieces can get lost. When this happens, the car seat is less effective.

However, note that while some car seats that have not been in a car crash or expired can look dirty or worn out, the opposite can also be true. Some very old car seats may still look new, particularly if they spent a lot of time on the store shelf or packed away somewhere before use. So, while it's crucial to inspect a used car seat for any cracks or other signs of damage, faulty car seats may not appear to have anything wrong with them.

Also, car seats often sit in a hot car during the summer months and in a cold car in the winter. This exposure to extreme temperatures—as well as direct sunlight in some cases—can cause the plastic to degrade over time.

Trusting the Seller

Buying a used car seat means you are relying on the seller to give you accurate information. With a close friend or family member, you'll have less reason to doubt. But can you trust a stranger on eBay to tell you whether or not that car seat was in a crash? Do you know the person at the yard sale well enough to know that they have maintained the car seat according to the manufacturer's instructions?

When you trust a stranger to give you that kind of information, you are essentially trusting them with your child's life, so it's important to make that choice wisely. That's why, unless the used car seat is coming from a trusted source, it is usually better to budget for a new car seat and cut costs elsewhere if need be.

Used Car Seat Checklist

If you have a trusted friend or family member who is willing to give you a used (but ideally, lightly used and newish) car seat, that may be a safe choice if you can verify:

  • Age of seat
  • Crash history
  • Expiration date
  • Labels and manuals
  • Original parts

How to Find an Affordable Car Seat

When most people consider buying a used car seat, it is usually because of budget concerns. After all, car seats are expensive. But aside from a crib, a car seat is one of the most important pieces of baby equipment you will need. Use these strategies to find a car seat you can afford.

Access Community Resources

Start by checking with your local Women, Infants, Children (WIC) office. If you qualify, you may be required ‎to take a short class to learn about car seat safety and usage, but once you complete the program you get a voucher that ‎can be used to buy a car seat. If your local WIC doesn’t have such a program, you can ask them about ‎other local programs that might be able to help you.

State-run programs, local charities, and even some businesses have programs that help people get car seats for their little ones when they cannot afford them. You may have to ask around, do some online research, and make a few calls, but with a little legwork, you may be able to find an organization that is giving away free car seats or vouchers to qualifying parents.

Ask a Hospital or Police Department

Some local hospitals and police departments provide assistance when it comes to finding affordable car seats. Hospitals may provide vouchers for car seats after you complete their prenatal program, and some police departments do community drives so that they can provide car seats to people in their community who are in need.

Keep in mind that the law requires your baby to be in a car seat. In order to be discharged from the hospital and leave with your baby, you have to have a car seat already installed in your car. Because of this, many hospitals do what they can to help you find a seat that will fit your budget. Your OB/GYN may also have information about local resources for getting free or more affordable car seats.

Call 211

The 211 service can be a lifesaver for people who are struggling. It is run by the United Way and is designed to put people in touch with the help and resources they need.

The folks answering the phone lines can help with finding an affordable car seat, and they also are trained to help with other basic needs like food and rent as well. Many people find that dialing 211 keeps them from having to make a lot of phone calls looking for help. This resource is available in all 50 states.

Research and Shop Around

When looking for a car seat for your little one, take some time to shop around. Compare prices—including shipping costs—to determine which car seat makes the most sense for your needs and your budget. Many retailers offer free shipping if you buy online.

You also might want to consider style, weight requirements, and safety features. Ideally, you want to find a car seat that will work for your baby for some time before you have to buy a new one. That said, buying a large car seat for a newborn may not be the best route to take. Look for one that starts at a newborn weight and goes up.

Why Car Seat Safety Matters

Injuries from car crashes are a leading cause of death among children in the United States. Every day, three kids die in car crashes and 502 are injured.

Buckling children in age- and size-appropriate car seats and booster seats reduces the risk of serious and fatal injuries by up to 80%.

A Word From Verywell

Buying a car seat—and using and installing it properly—is one of the most important steps you will take in caring for your baby. It also can be one of the more expensive ones. For this reason, it is often tempting to purchase a used car seat. Despite the appeal of saving a little extra money, in the long run, this might not be the safest—or even the least expensive—option.

If you cannot verify all of the things mentioned here, the car seat is considered unsafe for use, even if it appears to be in good condition. Car crashes can cause stress and structural weakness that isn't visible from the outside, and older car seats can be weakened by many seasons of heat and cold in the car. Unless a used car seat is coming from a close friend or family member and meets the above criteria, if possible, buy a new car seat for your baby.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Car seats: information for families.

  2. Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association. Useful life of car seats.

  3. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Car seat use after a crash.

  4. United Way 211 Program. Help starts here.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Child passenger safety.

  6. NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis. Traffic safety and facts: 2019 data.

By Heather Corley
Heather Wootton Corley is a mother, freelance writer and certified Child Passenger Safety Technician-Instructor.