Intermittent regimens of iron supplementation during pregnancy

Anaemia is a frequent condition during pregnancy, particularly among women from low- and middle-income countries who have insufficient iron intake to meet increased iron needs. Traditionally, pregnancy anaemia has been prevented with the provision of daily iron supplements, however, it has recently been proposed that if women take supplements less often, such as once or twice weekly rather than daily, this might reduce side effects and increase acceptance and adherence to supplementation. In this review we assess the benefits and harms of intermittent (i.e. two or three times a week on non-consecutive days) oral supplementation with iron or iron + folic acid or iron + vitamins and minerals for pregnant women.

We included 27 randomised controlled trials, but only 21 trials involving 5490 women, had information on the outcomes we evaluated. Three studies looked at intermittent iron alone versus daily iron alone, the other studies included in the review compared intermittent iron combined with folic acid or other vitamins and minerals compared with the same supplements provided daily. Looking at all the studies together (any intermittent regimen including iron versus a daily regimen), there was no clear evidence of differences between groups for most of the outcomes we examined including infant birthweight, premature birth, and perinatal death, or anaemia, haemoglobin concentration and iron deficiency in women at the end of pregnancy. However, women receiving intermittent rather than daily iron supplements were less likely to report side effects (such as constipation and nausea). In addition, intermittent supplementation appeared to decrease the number of women with high haemoglobin concentrations during mid and late pregnancy compared with daily regimens. High haemoglobin concentrations may be harmful as they may be associated with an increased risk of having a premature birth and low birthweight baby. There were no other clear differences between groups for other outcomes examined.

Authors' conclusions: 

This review is the most comprehensive summary of the evidence assessing the benefits and harms of intermittent iron supplementation in pregnant women on haematological and pregnancy outcomes. Findings suggest that intermittent regimens produced similar maternal and infant outcomes as daily supplementation but were associated with fewer side effects and reduced the risk of high levels of Hb in mid and late pregnancy, although the risk of mild anaemia near term was increased. While the quality of the evidence was assessed as low or very low, intermittent may be a feasible alternative to daily iron supplementation among those pregnant women who are not anaemic and have adequate antenatal care.

Read the full abstract...

Anaemia is a frequent condition during pregnancy, particularly among women in low- and middle-income countries. Traditionally, gestational anaemia has been prevented with daily iron supplements throughout pregnancy, but adherence to this regimen due to side effects, interrupted supply of the supplements, and concerns about safety among women with an adequate iron intake, have limited the use of this intervention. Intermittent (i.e. two or three times a week on non-consecutive days) supplementation has been proposed as an alternative to daily supplementation.


To assess the benefits and harms of intermittent supplementation with iron alone or in combination with folic acid or other vitamins and minerals to pregnant women on neonatal and pregnancy outcomes.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group's Trials Register (31 July 2015), the WHO International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP) (31 July 2015) and contacted relevant organisations for the identification of ongoing and unpublished studies (31 July 2015).

Selection criteria: 

Randomised or quasi-randomised trials.

Data collection and analysis: 

We assessed the methodological quality of trials using standard Cochrane criteria. Two review authors independently assessed trial eligibility, extracted data and conducted checks for accuracy.

Main results: 

This review includes 27 trials from 15 countries, but only 21 trials (with 5490 women) contributed data to the review. All studies compared daily versus intermittent iron supplementation. The methodological quality of included studies was mixed and most had high levels of attrition.The overall assessment of the quality of the evidence for primary infant outcomes was low and for maternal outcomes very low.

Of the 21 trials contributing data, three studies provided intermittent iron alone, 14 intermittent iron + folic acid and four intermittent iron plus multiple vitamins and minerals in comparison with the same composition of supplements provided in a daily regimen.

Overall, for women receiving any intermittent iron regimen (with or without other vitamins and minerals) compared with a daily regimen there was no clear evidence of differences between groups for any infant primary outcomes: low birthweight (average risk ratio (RR) 0.82; 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.55 to 1.22; participants = 1898; studies = eight; low quality evidence), infant birthweight (mean difference (MD) 5.13 g; 95% CI -29.46 to 39.72; participants = 1939; studies = nine; low quality evidence), premature birth (average RR 1.03; 95% CI 0.76 to 1.39; participants = 1177; studies = five; low quality evidence), or neonatal death (average RR 0.49; 95% CI 0.04 to 5.42; participants = 795; studies = one; very low quality). None of the studies reported congenital anomalies.

For maternal outcomes, there was no clear evidence of differences between groups for anaemia at term (average RR 1.22; 95% CI 0.84 to 1.80; participants = 676; studies = four; I² = 10%; very low quality). Women receiving intermittent supplementation had fewer side effects (average RR 0.56; 95% CI 0.37 to 0.84; participants = 1777; studies = 11; I² = 87%; very low quality) and were at lower risk of having high haemoglobin (Hb) concentrations (greater than 130 g/L) during the second or third trimester of pregnancy (average RR 0.53; 95% CI 0.38 to 0.74; participants = 2616; studies = 15; I² = 52%; (this was not a primary outcome)) compared with women receiving daily supplements. There were no significant differences in iron-deficiency anaemia at term between women receiving intermittent or daily iron + folic acid supplementation (average RR 0.71; 95% CI 0.08 to 6.63; participants = 156; studies = one). There were no maternal deaths (six studies) or women with severe anaemia in pregnancy (six studies). None of the studies reported on iron deficiency at term or infections during pregnancy.

Most of the studies included in the review (14/21 contributing data) compared intermittent oral iron + folic acid supplementation compared with daily oral iron + folic acid supplementation (4653 women) and findings for this comparison broadly reflect findings for the main comparison (any intermittent versus any daily regimen).

Three studies with 464 women examined supplementation with intermittent oral iron alone compared with daily oral iron alone. There were no clear differences between groups for mean birthweight, preterm birth, maternal anaemia or maternal side effects. Other primary outcomes were not reported.

Four studies with a combined sample size of 412 women compared intermittent oral iron + vitamins and minerals supplementation with daily oral iron + vitamins and minerals supplementation. Results were not reported for any of the review's infant primary outcomes. One study reported fewer maternal side effects in the intermittent iron group, and two studies that more women were anaemic at term compared with those receiving daily supplementation.

Where sufficient data were available for primary outcomes, we set up subgroups to look for possible differences between studies in terms of earlier or later supplementation; women's anaemia status at the start of supplementation; higher and lower weekly doses of iron; and the malarial status of the region in which the trials were conducted. There was no clear effect of these variables on results.