OBJECTIVE: To investigate the prevalence of persistent and long term postpartum faecal incontinence and associations with mode of first and subsequent deliveries. DESIGN: Longitudinal study. SETTING: Maternity units in Aberdeen, Birmingham and Dunedin. POPULATION: Four thousand two hundred and fourteen women who returned postal questionnaires three months and six years postpartum. METHODS: Symptom data were obtained from both questionnaires and obstetric data from case-notes for the index birth and the second questionnaire for subsequent births. Logistic regression investigated the independent effects of mode of first delivery and delivery history. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Incontinence to bowel motions three months and six years after index birth. For delivery history, the outcome was incontinence only at six years. RESULTS: The prevalence of persistent faecal incontinence was 3.6%. Almost 90% of these women reported no symptoms before their first birth. The forceps delivery of a first baby was independently predictive of persistent symptoms (OR 2.06, 95% CI 1.40-3.04). A caesarean section first birth was not significantly associated with persistent symptoms (OR 1.07, 95% CI 0.64-1.81). Delivering exclusively by caesarean section also showed no association with subsequent symptoms (OR 1.04, 95% CI 0.72-1.50) but ever having forceps was significantly predictive (OR 1.48, 95% CI 1.18-1.87). Other factors independently associated with persistent faecal incontinence were older maternal age, increasing number of births and Asian ethnic group. Birthweight and long second stage were not significantly associated. CONCLUSIONS: The risk of persistent faecal incontinence is significantly higher after a first delivery by forceps. We found no evidence of a lower risk of subsequent faecal incontinence for exclusive caesarean section deliveries.