Objectives: To determine whether increased postnatal support could influence maternal and child health outcomes.
Design: This was a randomised controlled trial comparing maternal and child health outcomes for women offered either of the support interventions with those for control women receiving standard services only. Outcome data were collected through questionnaires distributed 12 and 18 months postrandomisation. Process data were also collected. There was also an integral economic evaluation.
Setting and participants: Women living in deprived enumeration districts in selected London boroughs were eligible for the trial if they gave birth between 1 January and 30 September 1999.
Results: The 731 participants were found to be well matched in terms of socio-economic characteristics and health and support variables (14% of the participants were non-English speaking). Response rates at the two follow-up points were 90% and 82%. At both points there were no differences that could not be attributed to chance on the primary outcomes of maternal depression, child injury or maternal smoking. At the first follow-up, there was reduced use of general practitioners by support health visitor (SHV) children, but increased use of NHS health visitors and social workers by mothers. At the second follow-up, both community group support (CGS) and SHV mothers had less use of midwifery services (fewer were pregnant), and SHV mothers were less worried about their child's health and development. Uptake of the CGS intervention was low: 19%, compared with 94% for the SHV intervention. Satisfaction with the intervention among women in the SHV group was high. Based on the assumptions and conditions of the costing methods, the economic evaluation found no net economic cost or benefit of choosing either of the two interventions.
Conclusions: There was no evidence of impact on the primary outcomes of either intervention. The SHV intervention was popular with women, and was associated with improvement in some of the secondary outcomes. This suggests that greater emphasis on the social support role of health visitors could improve some measures of family well-being. Possible areas for future research include a systematic review of social support and its effect on health; developing and testing other postnatal models of support that match more closely the age of the baby and the changing patterns of mothers' needs; evaluating other strategies for mobilising 'non-professional' support; developing and testing more culturally specific support interventions; developing more culturally appropriate standardised measures of health outcomes; providing longer term follow-up of social support interventions; and exploring the role of social support on the delay in subsequent pregnancy.