OBJECTIVES: To review the evidence of effectiveness of prenatal care for preventing low birth weight (LBW). METHODS: We reviewed original research, systematic reviews, meta-analyses and commentaries for evidence of effectiveness of the three core components of prenatal care--risk assessment, health promotion and medical and psychosocial interventions--for preventing the two constituents of LBW: preterm birth and intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR). RESULTS: Clinical risk assessment will fail to identify the majority of pregnancies at risk for preterm delivery or IUGR. While biophysical and biochemical modalities appear promising, their cost-effectiveness has not been demonstrated, nor can their routine use be recommended in the absence of effective interventions. Smoking cessation programs appear to be modestly effective. There is insufficient evidence to conclude a benefit for nutrition interventions, work counseling or preterm birth education. Only antenatal corticosteroid therapy has demonstrated a clear benefit in the tertiary prevention of preterm delivery. Interventions for which there is insufficient evidence to conclude a benefit include bed rest, hydration, sedation, cerclage, progesterone supplementation, antibiotic treatment, tocolysis without concomitant use of corticosteroids, thyrotropin-releasing hormone, psychosocial support and home visitation. Additionally, there is a paucity of evidence supporting the effectiveness of prenatal interventions, such as low-dose aspirin, bed rest, maternal hyperoxygenation, plasma volume expansion and antenatal fetal assessment, in preventing IUGR or its associated morbidity and mortality. CONCLUSIONS: Neither preterm birth nor IUGR can be effectively prevented by prenatal care in its present form. Preventing LBW will require reconceptualization of prenatal care as part of a longitudinally and contextually integrated strategy to promote optimal development of women's reproductive health not only during pregnancy, but over the life course.
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