The moment you receive the news that you have gestational diabetes, you may begin to wonder how it will affect your baby and the remainder of your pregnancy. One risk you may consider is whether or not your baby is more likely to be diagnosed with a physical, developmental, or mental health condition.
Autism and gestational diabetes are two separate conditions, and we’ll cover whether or not a link exists – and if so, what you can do to support your body and your baby during pregnancy. First, let’s learn the basics of diabetes and autism and understand what’s going on inside the body.
Diabetes is a disease that affects the way the body handles sugar in the blood. When we eat certain foods, like carbohydrates, the body breaks them down into usable packets of energy called glucose.
Glucose is a simple sugar that your cells need for energy. When your blood glucose levels rise after a meal, your pancreas begins to produce insulin. Insulin is a hormone that works like a key, allowing glucose to travel into the cells.
In someone with diabetes, either the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin to keep up with the sugar levels in the blood or the cells have become resistant to the insulin that is produced (a condition called insulin resistance) – or often and eventually, both of the above.
Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 diabetics have an autoimmune disorder that prevents the pancreas from producing insulin. As such, type 1 diabetics are referred to as being insulin dependent. This means they have to use externally sourced insulin to survive. Often referred to as juvenile diabetes, this type of diabetes is most frequently diagnosed during childhood or early adolescence.
Type 2 Diabetes
Unlike type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes is diagnosed most frequently in adulthood. Type 2 diabetes occurs over time and refers to chronically high blood sugar, or hyperglycemia. Researchers aren’t sure what causes type 2 diabetes, but a diagnosis is almost always preceded by being overweight and having an inactive lifestyle.
There is no cure for type 2 diabetes, but with diet and exercise, you can reduce your reliance on medication.
If your blood sugar levels are elevated but not yet considered diabetic, you may be told you have prediabetes. This condition is reversible through diet and exercise, but it does place you at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes if you become pregnant.
Only pregnant women who have never had diabetes can develop gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM). During pregnancy, the body grows an entirely new organ called the placenta. The placenta releases hormones that can cause excess blood sugar to be stored in the blood and can cause the cells to become resistant to the insulin that is produced.
Who Is At Risk?
Researchers aren’t sure why some pregnant women develop gestational diabetes, but some risk factors may make you more likely to have it. These include:
- Maternal obesity or having a high BMI
- Having an inactive lifestyle
- Being of advanced maternal age
- Being of a certain race or ethnicity like African American, Asian American, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, or American Indian
- Having a family history of diabetes
- Having had gestational diabetes during a previous pregnancy
- Previously giving birth to a large baby (a baby weighing over 8 pounds, 13 ounces)
You can reduce your risk of developing gestational diabetes by maintaining a healthy weight and getting plenty of physical exercise before you become pregnant.
How Is Gestational Diabetes Diagnosed?
Your doctor will administer a gestational diabetes screening when you have reached 24 weeks of pregnancy. This test consists of consuming an oral glucose solution and then having your blood tested. A blood test is the only way of determining whether or not you have gestational diabetes.
Does Gestational Diabetes Go Away?
Gestational diabetes usually goes away on its own once your pregnancy is over. You’ll need to follow up with your doctor to get additional blood tests to ensure your blood sugar is well managed after your baby arrives.
Having gestational diabetes places you at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. It also has risks for your baby once they are born, including an increased risk of obesity. Your baby will also be at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes if you have had gestational diabetes.
If left untreated, gestational diabetes can lead to high blood pressure and increase the risk of preeclampsia.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that refers to a range of conditions that can limit a person’s ability to communicate socially, interact, and learn.
It also includes a range of repetitive behaviors and actions that are generally regarded as outside of the norm for a person’s age developmentally, and may contribute to attention deficit or impairment similar to that seen with ADHD.
Autism is hard to diagnose, but behavioral nuances and communication delays during the first two years of life can make it easier for medical pediatrics professionals to establish a baseline and later produce a diagnosis.
What Causes Autism?
There are many causes linked to increased risk of autism and other developmental disorders, but the two most prevalent factors are genetics and environment.
Genetic factors refer to mutations in the DNA passed from a mother and father to their baby. Autism is thought to be hereditary, but the pattern of hereditary that contributes to the risk of ASD is usually not well established.
Environmental components refer to the environment in which a child grows and develops in utero. As such, a mother’s pre-pregnancy medications, illnesses, diseases, and conditions can have an effect on brain development that could increase the risk of the child being born with autism.
Gestational Diabetes and Autism: Is There a Link?
It’s important to understand that gestational diabetes is a relatively common condition that affects between 6% to 9% of pregnant women. Despite its prevalence, this condition can generally be managed with diet, exercise, monitoring by a healthcare professional, and if needed, medication.
Gestational diabetes that goes untreated presents a greater risk to the health of both the mother and baby. While there is a link between gestational diabetes and increased risk of autism spectrum disorders, new studies and clinical trials have not yet revealed the actual cause of this association.
Previous studies from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) have found that the occurrence of autism rises to about seven cases per 1,000 pregnancies in mothers who have gestational diabetes (i.e., less than 1% incidence); however, researchers have expressed the need for caution in concluding that gestational diabetes increases the risk of autism in children.
There are many factors that play a role in whether or not a child will be diagnosed with autism, and while these findings may provide evidence that gestational diabetes is a cause, it is by an incredibly small percentage.
What You Can Do To Support a Healthy Pregnancy with Gestational Diabetes
If you’ve been diagnosed with gestational diabetes, the most important action you can take is to listen to your doctor and take steps to ensure your blood sugar levels are well managed during the remainder of your pregnancy. Your doctor may suggest you add a registered dietitian to your health care team or speak with a diabetes educator to learn more about how your body processes glucose.
You can reduce your risk of complications from gestational diabetes by making a few lifestyle changes.
1. Adopt a Healthy Diet
Your diet will be extremely important while you are pregnant. Most pregnant women need to consume an additional 300 calories per day to support their growing babies, but if you have gestational diabetes, your doctor may adjust this amount according to your unique diabetes care plan.
Choosing foods with low glycemic indexes will be important in helping keep your blood sugar levels stable. You’ll also want to avoid added sugar in your food and opt for foods that contain fiber and protein.
Fill your plate with leafy green vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and low-fat dairy to keep your belly full, your baby happy, and your blood glucose levels safe.
The American Diabetic Association recommends 150 minutes of heart-pumping exercise per week to help support healthy blood sugar levels. This amount of activity is generally very safe during pregnancy unless otherwise instructed by your doctor.
Fitting in a 30-minute walk each day can help elevate your mood, help you maintain healthy weight gain during pregnancy, and help your body use glucose more efficiently.
3. Stay on Track
Prenatal and perinatal care is key to a healthy pregnancy and delivery. Regular checkups with your obstetric doctor are important to help ensure both that your gestational diabetes is being monitored and that your baby is healthy.
It’s also crucial to follow your doctor’s care instructions and keep track of medical records to make sure you are making healthy decisions for yourself and your baby.
Your pregnancy is an exciting time of expectation. Having gestational diabetes might cause you to worry about medical conditions that could affect your baby, but with the right management and lifestyle changes, you can stay healthy and reduce the risk of negative health impacts associated with gestational diabetes.
For more information, check out our our blog. Here, you’ll find information on gestational diabetes and answers to some of the most frequently asked pregnancy-related questions.
References, Studies and Sources:
NIMH » Autism Spectrum Disorder|NIMH.NIH.gov
Autism spectrum disorder: MedlinePlus Genetics|Medlineplus.gov
Diabetes During Pregnancy | Maternal Infant Health | Reproductive Health | CDC
Gestational diabetes induces behavioral and brain gene transcription dysregulation in adult offspring | Translational Psychiatry|Nature.com
Association of maternal diabetes with autism in offspring|PubMed
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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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