Objective: to investigate the use and effects of birth plans and how women perceive them. Design: retrospective questionnaire survey. Setting: a teaching hospital with approximately 3000 deliveries per annum in Dundee, Scotland. Participants: 143 primigravidae, six to 13 weeks following delivery. Findings: the study achieved a 71% response rate. Ninety per cent of women had completed a birth plan. Most women thought the process of completion of the plan had been useful by allowing discussion of available options beforehand. Half said the birth plan did not make any difference to the amount of control they felt during labour, although many thought that not enough attention had been paid to what they had written. Most women said they would make another birth plan in a future pregnancy. Conclusions: the majority of women found completion of a birth plan was beneficial. Implications for practice: more attention should be paid to the birth plan by carers during labour.