Antenatal corticosteroids for accelerating fetal lung maturation for women at risk of preterm birth

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020 Dec 25;12(12):CD004454. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004454.pub4.


Background: Respiratory morbidity including respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) is a serious complication of preterm birth and the primary cause of early neonatal mortality and disability. Despite early evidence indicating a beneficial effect of antenatal corticosteroids on fetal lung maturation and widespread recommendations to use this treatment in women at risk of preterm delivery, some uncertainty remains about their effectiveness particularly with regard to their use in lower-resource settings, different gestational ages and high-risk obstetric groups such as women with hypertension or multiple pregnancies. This updated review (which supersedes an earlier review Crowley 1996) was first published in 2006 and subsequently updated in 2017.

Objectives: To assess the effects of administering a course of corticosteroids to women prior to anticipated preterm birth (before 37 weeks of pregnancy) on fetal and neonatal morbidity and mortality, maternal mortality and morbidity, and on the child in later life.

Search methods: We searched the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group's Trials Register (3 September 2020),, the databases that contribute to the WHO International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP) (3 September 2020), and reference lists of the retrieved studies.

Selection criteria: We considered all randomised controlled comparisons of antenatal corticosteroid administration with placebo, or with no treatment, given to women with a singleton or multiple pregnancy, prior to anticipated preterm delivery (elective, or following rupture of membranes or spontaneous labour), regardless of other co-morbidity, for inclusion in this review.

Data collection and analysis: We used standard Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth methods for data collection and analysis. Two review authors independently assessed trials for inclusion, assessed risk of bias, evaluated trustworthiness based on predefined criteria developed by Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth, extracted data and checked them for accuracy, and assessed the certainty of the evidence using the GRADE approach. Primary outcomes included perinatal death, neonatal death, RDS, intraventricular haemorrhage (IVH), birthweight, developmental delay in childhood and maternal death.

Main results: We included 27 studies (11,272 randomised women and 11,925 neonates) from 20 countries. Ten trials (4422 randomised women) took place in lower- or middle-resource settings. We removed six trials from the analysis that were included in the previous version of the review; this review only includes trials that meet our pre-defined trustworthiness criteria. In 19 trials the women received a single course of steroids. In the remaining eight trials repeated courses may have been prescribed. Fifteen trials were judged to be at low risk of bias, two had a high risk of bias in two or more domains and we ten trials had a high risk of bias due to lack of blinding (placebo was not used in the control arm. Overall, the certainty of evidence was moderate to high, but it was downgraded for IVH due to indirectness; for developmental delay due to risk of bias and for maternal adverse outcomes (death, chorioamnionitis and endometritis) due to imprecision. Neonatal/child outcomes Antenatal corticosteroids reduce the risk of: - perinatal death (risk ratio (RR) 0.85, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.77 to 0.93; 9833 infants; 14 studies; high-certainty evidence; 2.3% fewer, 95% CI 1.1% to 3.6% fewer), - neonatal death (RR 0.78, 95% CI 0.70 to 0.87; 10,609 infants; 22 studies; high-certainty evidence; 2.6% fewer, 95% CI 1.5% to 3.6% fewer), - respiratory distress syndrome (RR 0.71, 95% CI 0.65 to 0.78; 11,183 infants; studies = 26; high-certainty evidence; 4.3% fewer, 95% CI 3.2% to 5.2% fewer). Antenatal corticosteroids probably reduce the risk of IVH (RR 0.58, 95% CI 0.45 to 0.75; 8475 infants; 12 studies; moderate-certainty evidence; 1.4% fewer, 95% CI 0.8% to1.8% fewer), and probably have little to no effect on birthweight (mean difference (MD) -14.02 g, 95% CI -33.79 to 5.76; 9551 infants; 19 studies; high-certainty evidence). Antenatal corticosteroids probably lead to a reduction in developmental delay in childhood (RR 0.51, 95% CI 0.27 to 0.97; 600 children; 3 studies; moderate-certainty evidence; 3.8% fewer, 95% CI 0.2% to 5.7% fewer). Maternal outcomes Antenatal corticosteroids probably result in little to no difference in maternal death (RR 1.19, 95% CI 0.36 to 3.89; 6244 women; 6 studies; moderate-certainty evidence; 0.0% fewer, 95% CI 0.1% fewer to 0.5% more), chorioamnionitis (RR 0.86, 95% CI 0.69 to 1.08; 8374 women; 15 studies; moderate-certainty evidence; 0.5% fewer, 95% CI 1.1% fewer to 0.3% more), and endometritis (RR 1.14, 95% CI 0.82 to 1.58; 6764 women; 10 studies; moderate-certainty; 0.3% more, 95% CI 0.3% fewer to 1.1% more) The wide 95% CIs in all of these outcomes include possible benefit and possible harm.

Authors' conclusions: Evidence from this updated review supports the continued use of a single course of antenatal corticosteroids to accelerate fetal lung maturation in women at risk of preterm birth. Treatment with antenatal corticosteroids reduces the risk of perinatal death, neonatal death and RDS and probably reduces the risk of IVH. This evidence is robust, regardless of resource setting (high, middle or low). Further research should focus on variations in the treatment regimen, effectiveness of the intervention in specific understudied subgroups such as multiple pregnancies and other high-risk obstetric groups, and the risks and benefits in the very early or very late preterm periods. Additionally, outcomes from existing trials with follow-up into childhood and adulthood are needed in order to investigate any longer-term effects of antenatal corticosteroids. We encourage authors of previous studies to provide further information which may answer any remaining questions about the use of antenatal corticosteroids without the need for further randomised controlled trials. Individual patient data meta-analyses from published trials are likely to provide answers for most of the remaining clinical uncertainties.

Trial registration: NCT01222247 NCT01084096 NCT03547791.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / administration & dosage*
  • Betamethasone / administration & dosage
  • Bias
  • Cerebral Intraventricular Hemorrhage / prevention & control
  • Developmental Disabilities / epidemiology
  • Dexamethasone / administration & dosage
  • Female
  • Fetal Organ Maturity / drug effects*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / administration & dosage
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Lung / drug effects
  • Lung / embryology*
  • Maternal Death
  • Perinatal Death
  • Pregnancy
  • Premature Birth*
  • Prenatal Care / methods*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Respiratory Distress Syndrome, Newborn / prevention & control*


  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones
  • Dexamethasone
  • Betamethasone
  • Hydrocortisone

Associated data