Expectations abound when you are expecting, but something you probably weren’t expecting was being diagnosed with gestational diabetes. This pregnancy complication puts you at higher risk for further issues with your pregnancy and delivery.
Although gestational diabetes is a serious condition, you can still have a stress-free, healthy pregnancy if you follow your doctor’s guidance and keep your blood sugar levels within a healthy range.
Together, we’ll discuss what gestational diabetes is, its causes, and your risk factors for developing it. We’ll also cover some potential risks associated with having gestational diabetes, including an early delivery.
Lastly, we’ll talk about maintaining your blood glucose levels and ensuring your body’s and your baby’s health.
What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes mellitus is a blanket term for conditions that cause the body to handle the glucose in the blood improperly.
When we eat certain foods, they break down into glucose, a simple sugar that your cells need to function. Glucose is important, and getting it to the correct cells requires insulin.
A rise in blood sugar levels after a meal triggers your pancreas to release insulin, a hormone that helps move glucose out of your bloodstream and to the cells.
A person with any type of diabetes has trouble making enough insulin or using insulin effectively. Let’s take a closer look.
Type 1 Diabetes
This autoimmune disorder causes the body’s immune system to attack the pancreas cells. This makes it impossible for the pancreas to produce insulin. Those with type 1 diabetes are considered insulin-dependent, as they need daily insulin injections to regulate their blood sugar.
There’s no cure for type 1 diabetes, but a type 1 diabetic can expect to lead a healthy life as long as they take their medication and pay attention to their diet.
Type 2 Diabetes
The most common form of diabetes is type 2 diabetes. This type of diabetes takes years to develop and may not be diagnosed until adulthood, although this is changing in recent years. A person who has type 2 diabetes is unable to produce enough insulin to keep up with the glucose in their bloodstream.
Additionally, a person with type 2 diabetes has cells that have become insulin resistant. This means their cells don’t use the glucose that insulin brings to them.
Type 2 diabetes has no cure, but with diet, exercise, and glucose monitoring, a person with type 2 diabetes can reduce their need for medication.
Gestational Diabetes Mellitus (GDM)
During pregnancy, the body grows an organ called the placenta. The placenta works as a functioning endocrine organ, releasing hormones that affect many different processes in the mother’s body and help support the growth and development of the baby.
The hormones released by the placenta can cause excess glucose to be stored in the blood. If the pancreas can’t keep up with this glucose, or if the cells in the body have begun to resist insulin, the woman may develop gestational diabetes.
Gestational diabetes usually goes away on its own after the baby is born.
Although prediabetes is not a diabetic condition, it’s a precursor. Blood sugar levels that are high but not yet considered diabetic are referred to as prediabetic. This condition is reversible through diet and exercise.
If you’ve ever been diagnosed with prediabetes before becoming pregnant, you have an increased risk of developing gestational diabetes during pregnancy.
What Causes Gestational Diabetes?
Researchers aren’t sure why some pregnant women develop gestational diabetes, and some do not.
However, certain risk factors may make you more likely to develop this condition:
- A previous prediabetes diagnosis
- Being inactive
- Being overweight
- A family history of diabetes or a family member who has had gestational diabetes
- Being Asian American, African American, Pacific Islander, or American Indian
- A previous diagnosis of gestational diabetes
- Giving birth to a larger-than-average baby (considered weighing over nine pounds)
If any of these markers are true for you, your risk of developing gestational diabetes will be higher, but it doesn’t mean you automatically develop it.
How Is Gestational Diabetes Diagnosed?
Around 24 weeks of pregnancy, well into your second trimester, your obstetrician will give you an oral glucose tolerance test. This test involves a period of fasting, followed by the consumption of a glucose drink in your doctor’s office.
Your doctor will administer a blood test approximately 20 minutes after drinking the glucose. If your test returns high blood sugar levels, you will likely be diagnosed with gestational diabetes.
Gestational Diabetes Risks to the Baby
Your doctor probably told you that having gestational diabetes carries certain risks to you and your baby during your pregnancy and delivery. These risks can include your ability to have a vaginal birth instead of cesarean delivery and your ability to carry your baby to term (considered 37 weeks of pregnancy).
Delivering a Baby With Gestational Diabetes
As long as you manage your blood sugar levels and have no other complications, you can plan to give birth to your baby between 37 to 40 weeks. However, if you are unable to control your gestational diabetes, there’s a risk you might need a cesarean section.
Most babies born to mothers with gestational diabetes will reach full term. However, if your blood sugar levels are not well managed, your baby may grow too big, a condition known as macrosomia.
When this happens, the baby may be surrounded by additional fluid, and the uterus may trigger into early labor because the baby’s size is larger than it should be.
Sometimes, babies born to mothers with gestational diabetes will develop hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. Usually, feeding your baby (either with formula or breastfeeding) will remedy your baby’s blood sugar issue.
Your baby may also need insulin injections when they are born if their blood sugar levels drop too low.
Babies that are very large (over eight pounds 13 ounces) are more likely to experience trauma during birth that could injure their bodies. Shoulder dystocia, wherein the baby’s shoulders get stuck in the mother’s pelvis during birth, may lead your health care team to offer you a C-section instead.
While it is uncommon, a higher risk of stillbirth is associated with having gestational diabetes. It’s extremely important to work with the right health care professionals (including your OB/GYN and a dietitian) to ensure your baby’s health and your own while pregnant.
Gestational Diabetes Risks to the Mother
Just like gestational diabetes has risks to your baby, it also comes with risks to your own body.
Having gestational diabetes can cause high blood pressure. High blood pressure can lead to preeclampsia during pregnancy, a life-threatening condition requiring immediate medical attention.
Type 2 Diabetes
Having gestational diabetes presents a risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. It’s important to monitor your diet and exercise postpartum and monitor your blood sugar levels to ensure you don’t develop this condition.
Keeping Healthy With Gestational Diabetes
Although there are risks, they are easily mitigated with proper diabetes care, like a healthy diet, exercise, and proper prenatal education from your health care provider. Here’s what you can do right now to help keep your blood sugar levels within a healthy range and protect your pregnancy and baby.
1. Adopt a Healthy Diet
You’ll need to learn how your body processes carbohydrates and added sugar and how many carbohydrates you need per day. Eating a wide variety of healthy foods, including vegetables, whole fruits, lean protein, whole grains, and low-fat dairy, will ensure you and your baby get needed nutrients while maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.
2. Get Active
Physical activity is important to every pregnancy unless you’ve been advised to avoid it by your obstetric care team. The American Diabetes Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.
Taking a daily 30-minute walk can help you meet this goal and keep your blood sugar levels safe.
Healthy Pregnancies and Beyond
Gestational diabetes carries risks, including premature birth. However, with proper diet and exercise, you can reduce your risk of complications and enjoy a happy, healthy pregnancy and safe delivery.
If you aren’t yet pregnant, you can lower your risk of developing gestational diabetes by losing weight if you are overweight, staying physically active, and eating a healthy diet.
Looking for more info as you navigate pregnancy and diabetes? Head over to more articles on Diabetic.org about Gestational Diabetes. Here, you’ll find articles about the most common pregnancy-related topics, including answers to your most important questions and tips and tricks on how to have a comfortable pregnancy.
References, Studies and Sources:
Gestational diabetes increases risk of preterm labor | Inside Children’s Blog
Shoulder Dystocia: Signs, Causes, Prevention & Complications|Cleveland Clinic.org
Fact Checked and Editorial Process
Diabetic.org is devoted to producing expert and accurate articles and information for our readers by hiring experts, journalists, medical professionals, and our growing Diabetic.org community. We encourage you to read more about our content, editing, and fact checking methods here. This was fact checked by Camille Freking and medically reviewed by Dr. Angel Rivera.
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