Antenatal interventions for preventing stillbirth, fetal loss and perinatal death: an overview of Cochrane systematic reviews

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020 Dec 18;12(12):CD009599. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD009599.pub2.


Background: Stillbirth is generally defined as a death prior to birth at or after 22 weeks' gestation. It remains a major public health concern globally. Antenatal interventions may reduce stillbirths and improve maternal and neonatal outcomes in settings with high rates of stillbirth. There are several key antenatal strategies that aim to prevent stillbirth including nutrition, and prevention and management of infections.

Objectives: To summarise the evidence from Cochrane systematic reviews on the effects of antenatal interventions for preventing stillbirth for low risk or unselected populations of women.

Methods: We collaborated with Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth's Information Specialist to identify all their published reviews that specified or reported stillbirth; and we searched the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (search date: 29 Feburary 2020) to identify reviews published within other Cochrane groups. The primary outcome measure was stillbirth but in the absence of stillbirth data, we used perinatal mortality (both stillbirth and death in the first week of life), fetal loss or fetal death as outcomes. Two review authors independently evaluated reviews for inclusion, extracted data and assessed quality of evidence using AMSTAR (A Measurement Tool to Assess Reviews) and GRADE tools. We assigned interventions to categories with graphic icons to classify the effectiveness of interventions as: clear evidence of benefit or harm; clear evidence of no effect or equivalence; possible benefit or harm; or unknown benefit or harm or no effect or equivalence.

Main results: We identified 43 Cochrane Reviews that included interventions in pregnant women with the potential for preventing stillbirth; all of the included reviews reported our primary outcome 'stillbirth' or in the absence of stillbirth, 'perinatal death' or 'fetal loss/fetal death'. AMSTAR quality was high in 40 reviews with scores ranging from 8 to 11 and moderate in three reviews with a score of 7. Nutrition interventions Clear evidence of benefit: balanced energy/protein supplementation versus no supplementation suggests a probable reduction in stillbirth (risk ratio (RR) 0.60, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.39 to 0.94, 5 randomised controlled trials (RCTs), 3408 women; moderate-certainty evidence). Clear evidence of no effect or equivalence for stillbirth or perinatal death: vitamin A alone versus placebo or no treatment; and multiple micronutrients with iron and folic acid versus iron with or without folic acid. Unknown benefit or harm or no effect or equivalence: for all other nutrition interventions examined the effects were uncertain. Prevention and management of infections Possible benefit for fetal loss or death: insecticide-treated anti-malarial nets versus no nets (RR 0.67, 95% CI 0.47 to 0.97, 4 RCTs; low-certainty). Unknown evidence of no effect or equivalence: drugs for preventing malaria (stillbirth RR 1.02, 95% CI 0.76 to 1.36, 5 RCTs, 7130 women, moderate certainty in women of all parity; perinatal death RR 1.24, 95% CI 0.94 to 1.63, 4 RCTs, 5216 women, moderate-certainty in women of all parity). Prevention, detection and management of other morbidities Clear evidence of benefit: the following interventions suggest a reduction: midwife-led models of care in settings where the midwife is the primary healthcare provider particularly for low-risk pregnant women (overall fetal loss/neonatal death reduction RR 0.84, 95% CI 0.71 to 0.99, 13 RCTs, 17,561 women; high-certainty), training versus not training traditional birth attendants in rural populations of low- and middle-income countries (stillbirth reduction odds ratio (OR) 0.69, 95% CI 0.57 to 0.83, 1 RCT, 18,699 women, moderate-certainty; perinatal death reduction OR 0.70, 95% CI 0.59 to 0.83, 1 RCT, 18,699 women, moderate-certainty). Clear evidence of harm: a reduced number of antenatal care visits probably results in an increase in perinatal death (RR 1.14 95% CI 1.00 to 1.31, 5 RCTs, 56,431 women; moderate-certainty evidence). Clear evidence of no effect or equivalence: there was evidence of no effect in the risk of stillbirth/fetal loss or perinatal death for the following interventions and comparisons: psychosocial interventions; and providing case notes to women. Possible benefit: community-based intervention packages (including community support groups/women's groups, community mobilisation and home visitation, or training traditional birth attendants who made home visits) may result in a reduction of stillbirth (RR 0.81, 95% CI 0.73 to 0.91, 15 RCTs, 201,181 women; low-certainty) and perinatal death (RR 0.78, 95% CI 0.70 to 0.86, 17 RCTs, 282,327 women; low-certainty). Unknown benefit or harm or no effect or equivalence: the effects were uncertain for other interventions examined. Screening and management of fetal growth and well-being Clear evidence of benefit: computerised antenatal cardiotocography for assessing infant's well-being in utero compared with traditional antenatal cardiotocography (perinatal mortality reduction RR 0.20, 95% CI 0.04 to 0.88, 2 RCTs, 469 women; moderate-certainty). Unknown benefit or harm or no effect or equivalence: the effects were uncertain for other interventions examined.

Authors' conclusions: While most interventions were unable to demonstrate a clear effect in reducing stillbirth or perinatal death, several interventions suggested a clear benefit, such as balanced energy/protein supplements, midwife-led models of care, training versus not training traditional birth attendants, and antenatal cardiotocography. Possible benefits were also observed for insecticide-treated anti-malarial nets and community-based intervention packages, whereas a reduced number of antenatal care visits were shown to be harmful. However, there was variation in the effectiveness of interventions across different settings, indicating the need to carefully understand the context in which these interventions were tested. Further high-quality RCTs are needed to evaluate the effects of antenatal preventive interventions and which approaches are most effective to reduce the risk of stillbirth. Stillbirth (or fetal death), perinatal and neonatal death need to be reported separately in future RCTs of antenatal interventions to allow assessment of different interventions on these rare but important outcomes and they need to clearly define the target populations of women where the intervention is most likely to be of benefit. As the high burden of stillbirths occurs in low- and middle-income countries, further high-quality trials need to be conducted in these settings as a priority.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Cardiotocography
  • Female
  • Fetal Death / prevention & control*
  • Fetal Development
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Insecticide-Treated Bednets
  • Midwifery
  • Nutrition Assessment
  • Perinatal Death / prevention & control*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Care / methods*
  • Prenatal Care / statistics & numerical data
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Stillbirth*
  • Systematic Reviews as Topic