The vast majority of global stillbirths occur in low- and middle-income countries, and in many settings, the majority of stillbirths occur antenatally, prior to the onset of labour. Poor nutritional status, lack of antenatal care and a number of behaviours increase women's risk of stillbirth in many resource-poor settings. Interventions to reduce these risks could reduce the resulting burden of stillbirths, but the evidence for the impact of such interventions has not yet been comprehensively evaluated.
This second paper of a systematic review of interventions that could plausibly impact stillbirth rates covers 12 different interventions relating to behavioural and socially mediated risk factors, including exposures to harmful practices and substances, antenatal care utilisation and quality, and maternal nutrition before and during pregnancy. The search strategy reviewed indexed medical journals on PubMed and the Cochrane Library. If any eligible randomised controlled trials were identified that were published after the most recent Cochrane review, they were added to generate new meta-analyses. Interventions covered in this paper have a focus on low- and middle-income countries, both because of the large burden of stillbirths and because of the high prevalence of risk factors including maternal malnutrition and harmful environmental exposures. The reviews and studies belonging to these interventions were graded and conclusions derived about the evidence of benefit of these interventions.
From a programmatic perspective, none of the interventions achieved clear evidence of benefit. Evidence for some socially mediated risk factors were identified, such as exposure to indoor air pollution and birth spacing, but still require the development of appropriate interventions. There is a need for additional studies on culturally appropriate behavioural interventions and clinical trials to increase smoking cessation and reduce exposure to smokeless tobacco. Balanced protein-energy supplementation was associated with reduced stillbirth rates, but larger well-designed trials are required to confirm findings. Peri-conceptional folic acid supplementation significantly reduces neural tube defects, yet no significant associated reductions in stillbirth rates have been documented. Evidence for other nutritional interventions including multiple micronutrient and Vitamin A supplementation is weak, suggesting the need for further research to assess potential of nutritional interventions to reduce stillbirths.
Antenatal care is widely used in low- and middle-income countries, and provides a natural facility-based contact through which to provide or educate about many of the interventions we reviewed. The impact of broader socially mediated behaviors, such as fertility decision-making, access to antenatal care, and maternal diet and exposures like tobacco and indoor air pollution during pregnancy, are poorly understood, and further research and appropriate interventions are needed to test the association of these behaviours with stillbirth outcomes. For most nutritional interventions, larger randomised controlled trials are needed which report stillbirths disaggregated from composite perinatal mortality. Many antepartum stillbirths are potentially preventable in low- and middle-income countries, particularly through dietary and environmental improvement, and through improving the quality of antenatal care – particularly including diagnosis and management of high-risk pregnancies – that pregnant women receive.