Short inter-pregnancy intervals (IPIs) have been associated with adverse maternal and infant health outcomes in the literature. However, many studies in this area have been lacking in quality and appropriate control for confounders known to be associated with both short IPIs and poor outcomes. The objective of this systematic review was to assess this relationship using more rigorous criteria, based on GRADE (Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation) methodology. We found too few higher-quality studies of the impact of IPIs (measured as the time between the birth of a previous child and conception of the next child) on maternal health to reach conclusions about maternal nutrition, morbidity or mortality. However, the evidence for infant effects justified meta-analyses. We found significant impacts of short IPIs for extreme preterm birth [<6 m adjusted odds ratio (aOR): 1.58 [95% confidence interval (CI) 1.40, 1.78], 6-11 m aOR: 1.23 [1.03, 1.46]], moderate preterm birth (<6 m aOR: 1.41 [1.20, 1.65], 6-11 m aOR: 1.09 [1.01, 1.18]), low birthweight (<6 m aOR: 1.44 [1.30, 1.61], 6-11 m aOR: 1.12 [1.08, 1.17]), stillbirth (aOR: 1.35 [1.07, 1.71] and early neonatal death (aOR: 1.29 [1.02, 1.64]) outcomes largely in high- and moderate-income countries. It is likely these effects would be greater in settings with poorer maternal health and nutrition. Future research in these settings is recommended. This is particularly important in developing countries, where often the pattern is to start childbearing at a young age, have all desired children quickly and then control fertility through permanent contraception, thereby contracting women's fertile years and potentially increasing their exposure to the ill effects of very short IPIs.
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.