Answers To Your Questions About a Serious Condition That Develops During Pregnancy
Picture this: you’ve never been diagnosed with diabetes. You get pregnant. Then suddenly, your doctor diagnoses you with diabetes. What has happened?
It’s called gestational diabetes. It develops during pregnancy (gestation) in women who’ve never had diabetes. And it’s not uncommon: every year, up to 10% of pregnant women in the United States develop gestational diabetes.
Like other types of diabetes, gestational diabetes develops when the body doesn’t properly use the insulin it produces. This results in high blood sugar (also called glucose) levels, which can lead to serious health problems such as heart disease, kidney disease, and vision loss.
Carly Burton, Apria’s Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist, states, “The good news is that gestational diabetes disappears following delivery.”
How Does Gestational Diabetes Differ from Other Forms of Diabetes?
People with type 1 diabetes produce little or no insulin, so they need daily insulin injections to maintain their blood glucose levels.
People with type 2 diabetes produce insulin like anyone else, but they can’t process it effectively. They usually manage their condition with proper nutrition, weight loss, and medications or insulin injections.
People with gestational diabetes can produce insulin. But their bodies release hormones that make it less effective. This causes a condition called “insulin resistance.”
What Are the Symptoms of Gestational Diabetes?
The symptoms of gestational diabetes can be difficult to notice but are often similar to other types of diabetes:
- Excessive thirst
- Frequent urination
- Increased hunger
Who Is at Risk for Gestational Diabetes?
You’re more likely to get gestational diabetes if you:
- Are overweight or obese
- Are not physically active
- Have prediabetes (higher than normal blood sugar levels—but not high enough to be diagnosed with diabetes)
- Have polycystic ovary syndrome (a hormonal imbalance that can affect reproductive and overall health)
- Have previously delivered a baby weighing more than 9 pounds (4.1 kilograms)
- Have a family history of diabetes
- Are of Black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, or Pacific Island descent
- Are older than 25
- Have had a miscarriage
- Have medical complications such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease
- Have had gestational diabetes before
What Are the Complications of Gestational Diabetes?
Both mother and child are at risk of developing complications due to gestational diabetes.
Complications for baby
If you have gestational diabetes, your baby may be at increased risk of:
- Excessive birth weight (also called macrosomia). Very large babies—more than 9 pounds—are more likely to need a Caesarian delivery (C-section).
- Premature birth, which can cause breathing difficulties such as respiratory distress syndrome (RDS, a breathing problem in newborns caused by lungs that aren’t fully developed).
- Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), which sometimes occurs shortly after birth. Severe episodes may cause seizures in the baby. Food or an intravenous glucose solution can normalize the baby's blood glucose level.
- Obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life.
- Jaundice, a condition in which the baby’s liver isn’t working properly. Symptoms include yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. Jaundice fades quickly with treatment.
Complications for mom
If you have gestational diabetes, you may be at increased risk of:
- High blood pressure (hypertension) and preeclampsia, a serious complication of pregnancy that causes high blood pressure and can be life-threatening.
- Delivering your baby via a Caesarian delivery (C-section).
- Gestational diabetes during future pregnancies.
- Type 2 diabetes as you get older.
- Low blood sugar.
- Postpartum depression (perinatal depression), which causes feelings of sadness and anxiety, and increases the risk of developing major depression later in life.
- Preterm birth (before 37 weeks of pregnancy), although most women with gestational diabetes have full-term pregnancies.
- Stillbirth, which is the death of a baby after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
How Is Gestational Diabetes Diagnosed?
Gestational diabetes often develops during the middle of pregnancy. Carly Burton from Apria says, “Your healthcare team will screen you for gestational diabetes between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy." They will first perform a glucose challenge test, and if that is failed, they will perform a glucose tolerance test.
- Glucose challenge test: First, you drink a sweet liquid. One hour later, your blood sugar level is measured. If your blood sugar is high, your doctor will conduct a glucose tolerance test.
- Glucose tolerance test: This test determines if you have gestational diabetes. Before taking the test, you fast for eight hours. Your doctor takes a blood sample to measure your glucose levels. You then drink a sweet liquid and your glucose level is checked again. This process repeats every hour for up to three hours.
How Is Gestational Diabetes Treated?
Treating gestational diabetes is very similar to treating other forms of diabetes.
- Eat a healthy, low-sugar diet. Trade cookies and candy for fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Stay active. Run, walk, swim, bike. Ask your doctor which activities are best for you. And remember: exercise can lower your blood sugar so keep a quick source of glucose – glucose tablets or hard candy – handy.
- Check your blood sugar levels to ensure they are in a healthy range.
- Go to all your prenatal care checkups and continue to take any medicine prescribed by your doctor.
- Women diagnosed with gestational diabetes should be screened for diabetes 6 to 12 weeks after giving birth. It’s also recommended that they undergo lifelong screening for diabetes at least every three years.
Speak with Your Doctor Now to Ensure a Healthy Future
It’s important to work with your doctor to help prevent gestational diabetes from happening in future pregnancies—as well as to lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes as you age.
Apria’s Carly Burton adds, “Gestational diabetes is treatable. By partnering with your healthcare team, you can help ensure a healthy pregnancy for you—and a healthy birth for your baby.”