Background: Antenatal care (ANC) is a key strategy to improve maternal and infant health. However, survey data from sub-Saharan Africa indicate that women often only initiate ANC after the first trimester and do not achieve the recommended number of ANC visits. Drawing on qualitative data, this article comparatively explores the factors that influence ANC attendance across four sub-Saharan African sites in three countries (Ghana, Kenya and Malawi) with varying levels of ANC attendance.
Methods: Data were collected as part of a programme of qualitative research investigating the social and cultural context of malaria in pregnancy. A range of methods was employed interviews, focus groups with diverse respondents and observations in local communities and health facilities.
Results: Across the sites, women attended ANC at least once. However, their descriptions of ANC were often vague. General ideas about pregnancy care - checking the foetus' position or monitoring its progress - motivated women to attend ANC; as did, especially in Kenya, obtaining the ANC card to avoid reprimands from health workers. Women's timing of ANC initiation was influenced by reproductive concerns and pregnancy uncertainties, particularly during the first trimester, and how ANC services responded to this uncertainty; age, parity and the associated implications for pregnancy disclosure; interactions with healthcare workers, particularly messages about timing of ANC; and the cost of ANC, including charges levied for ANC procedures - in spite of policies of free ANC - combined with ideas about the compulsory nature of follow-up appointments.
Conclusion: In these socially and culturally diverse sites, the findings suggest that 'supply' side factors have an important influence on ANC attendance: the design of ANC and particularly how ANC deals with the needs and concerns of women during the first trimester has implications for timing of initiation.