Background. The aim of this study was to provide a comprehensive picture of the young to the old first time mother as she presents to the clinician in terms of background, expectations, experiences and outcome of labour. Methods. A longitudinal cohort study was conducted, including 1,302 primiparous women recruited at their first booking visit, at 593 antenatal clinics in Sweden (97% of all clinics), during three 1-week periods, evenly spread over 1 year in 1999 and 2000. Two questionnaires were posted and completed: in the second trimester and 2 months after the birth. Women were divided into 5 age groups, with women aged 26–29 as reference. Results. The very young women, aged 15–20 years, had the most negative expectations of the upcoming birth. During pregnancy they were more worried and a depressive mood was more common than in the reference group, as were social problems such as unemployment and lack of support. After the birth, they remembered being more afraid and experiencing more pain and lack of control during labour. In spite of this, their overall experience of childbirth did not differ from the reference group. In contrast, the oldest women, aged 35–43 years, did not have negative feelings about the upcoming birth during pregnancy, and did not remember being afraid or experiencing more pain than the reference group, but experienced childbirth overall as more difficult. Only 57% of the oldest women had a normal vaginal delivery compared with 77% of the youngest women. In addition, 7% of the newborns in the oldest group were transferred to the neonatal clinic after the birth, which was almost 3 times as often as in the reference group. Conclusion. This study showed that expectations and experiences of childbirth vary by maternal age. Whereas the youngest women were more exposed to social and psychological problems, which may have affected their expectations and experiences during labour, the oldest women may have suffered from the biological disadvantage of high maternal age, which is associated with a more complicated delivery. When looking back at labour and birth, the youngest women probably felt that the total experience was better than expected, whereas the opposite may have been the case for the oldest group.