Maternal mortality ratios in northern Nigeria are among the worst in the world, over 1,000 per 100,000 live births in 2008, with a very low level and quality of maternity services. In 2009, we carried out a study of the reasons for low utilisation of antenatal and delivery care among women with recent pregnancies, and the socio-cultural beliefs and practices that influenced them. The study included a quantitative survey of 6,882 married women, 119 interviews and 95 focus group discussions with community and local government leaders, traditional birth attendants, women who had attended maternity services andhealth care providers. Only 26% of the women surveyed had received any antenatal care and only 13% delivered in a facility with a skilled birth attendant for their most recent pregnancy. However, those who had had at least one antenatal consultation were 7.6 times more likely to deliver with a skilled birth attendant. Most pregnant women had little or no contact with the health care system for reasons of custom, lack of perceived need, distance, lack of transport, lack of permission, cost and/or unwillingness to see a male doctor. Based on these findings, we designed and implemented an integrated package of interventions that included upgrading antenatal, delivery and emergency obstetric care; providing training, supervision and support for new midwives in primary health centres and hospitals; and providing information to the community about safe pregnancy and delivery and the use of these services.