Magnesium sulphate for preventing preterm birth in threatened preterm labour

Even short-term postponement of birth when labour begins early (before 37 weeks) can help improve outcomes for babies, as the woman can take corticosteroid drugs to help develop the baby's lungs in a short time. Magnesium sulphate is one of the drugs that has been used to try to stop the uterus contracting in women who go into labour too soon.

This review of 37 trials including 3571 women and their infants did not find that magnesium sulphate, given to women who go into labour too soon, prevented babies being born too soon or reduced the risks of the baby developing serious health problems. However, antenatal magnesium sulphate is effective in helping women who develop pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure and protein in the urine) and for helping to protect babies' brains.

Authors' conclusions: 

Magnesium sulphate is ineffective at delaying birth or preventing preterm birth, has no apparent advantages for a range of neonatal and maternal outcomes as a tocolytic agent and its use for this indication may be associated with an increased risk of total fetal, neonatal or infant mortality (in contrast to its use in appropriate groups of women for maternal, fetal, neonatal and infant neuroprotection where beneficial effects have been demonstrated).

Read the full abstract...

Magnesium sulphate has been used in some settings as a tocolytic agent to inhibit uterine activity in women in preterm labour with the aim of preventing preterm birth.


To assess the effects of magnesium sulphate therapy given to women in threatened preterm labour with the aim of preventing preterm birth and its sequelae.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group's Trials Register (last searched 31 January 2014).

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials of magnesium sulphate as the only tocolytic, administered by any route, compared with either placebo, no treatment or alternative tocolytic therapy (not magnesium sulphate) to women considered to be in preterm labour.

Data collection and analysis: 

At least two review authors assessed trial eligibility and risk of bias and undertook data extraction independently.

Main results: 

The 37 included trials (total of 3571 women and over 3600 babies) were generally of moderate to high risk of bias. Antenatal magnesium sulphate was compared with either placebo, no treatment, or a range of alternative tocolytic agents.

For the primary outcome of giving birth within 48 hours after trial entry, no significant differences were seen between women who received magnesium sulphate and women who did not (whether placebo/no alternative tocolytic drug, betamimetics, calcium channel blockers, cox inhibitors, prostaglandin inhibitors, or human chorionic gonadotropin) (19 trials, 1913 women). Similarly for the primary outcome of serious infant outcome, there were no significant differences between the infants exposed to magnesium sulphate and those not (whether placebo/no alternative tocolytic drug, betamimetics, calcium channel blockers, cox inhibitors, prostaglandin inhibitors, human chorionic gonadotropin or various tocolytic drugs) (18 trials; 2187 babies). No trials reported the outcome of extremely preterm birth. In the seven trials that reported serious maternal outcomes, no events were recorded.

In the group treated with magnesium sulphate compared with women receiving antenatal placebo or no alternative tocolytic drug, a borderline increased risk of total death (fetal, neonatal, infant) was seen (risk ratio (RR) 4.56, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.00 to 20.86; two trials, 257 babies); none of the comparisons between magnesium sulphate and other classes of tocolytic drugs showed differences for this outcome (10 trials, 991 babies). The outcomes of neonatal and/or infant deaths and of fetal deaths did not show differences between magnesium sulphate and no magnesium sulphate, whether compared with placebo/no alternative tocolytic drug, or any specific class of tocolytic drug. For most of the other secondary outcomes, there were no significant differences between magnesium sulphate and the control groups for risk of preterm birth (except for a significantly lower risk with magnesium sulphate when compared with barbiturates in one trial of 65 women), gestational age at birth, interval between trial entry and birth, other neonatal morbidities, or neurodevelopmental outcomes. Duration of neonatal intensive care unit stay was significantly increased in the magnesium sulphate group compared with the calcium channel blocker group, but not when compared with cox inhibitors or prostaglandin inhibitors. No maternal deaths were reported in the four trials reporting this outcome. Significant differences between magnesium sulphate and controls were not seen for maternal adverse events severe enough to stop treatment, except for a significant benefit of magnesium sulphate compared with betamimetics in a single trial.