Background: The potential of antenatal care for reducing maternal morbidity and improving newborn survival and health is widely acknowledged. Yet there are worrying gaps in knowledge of the quality of antenatal care provided in Tanzania. In particular, determinants of health workers' performance have not yet been fully understood. This paper uses ethnographic methods to document health workers' antenatal care practices with reference to the national Focused Antenatal Care guidelines and identifies factors influencing health workers' performance. Potential implications for improving antenatal care provision in Tanzania are discussed. Methods: Combining different qualitative techniques, we studied health workers' antenatal care practices in four public antenatal care clinics in the Kilombero Valley, south-eastern Tanzania. A total of 36 antenatal care consultations were observed and compared with the Focused Antenatal Care guidelines. Participant observation, informal discussions and in-depth interviews with the staff helped to identify and explain health workers' practices and contextual factors influencing antenatal care provision. Results: The delivery of antenatal care services to pregnant women at the selected antenatal care clinics varied widely. Some services that are recommended by the Focused Antenatal Care guidelines were given to all women while other services were not delivered at all. Factors influencing health workers' practices were poor implementation of the Focused Antenatal Care guidelines, lack of trained staff and absenteeism, supply shortages and use of working tools that are not consistent with the Focused Antenatal Care guidelines. Health workers react to difficult working conditions by developing informal practices as coping strategies or "street-level bureaucracy". Conclusions: Efforts to improve antenatal care should address shortages of trained staff through expanding training opportunities, including health worker cadres with little pre-service training. Attention should be paid to the identification of informal practices resulting from individual coping strategies and "street-level bureaucracy" in order to tackle problems before they become part of the organizational culture.