Swallowing the oral glucose tolerance test drink can be an unpleasant experience, but it’s an important step during prenatal care to help you find out if you may have gestational diabetes.
Gestational diabetes is a condition pregnant women can develop that affects blood sugar regulation, and it is diagnosed in people who have never had diabetes. If you get a diagnosis, it means you’ll need to take certain steps to ensure your pregnancy’s and your baby’s safety.
While your healthcare provider should be your go-to source for information and guidance about your condition, we’ll answer some frequently asked questions about gestational diabetes, including what it is, how it affects your body, and what risks it presents to your baby.
First, let’s learn the basics of blood sugar levels and why having high blood sugar levels places you at risk of diabetes.
What Is Blood Sugar?
Your body breaks down foods (like carbohydrates) into small, usable packets of energy called glucose. Glucose is a simple sugar your cells need to perform cellular functions.
Glucose requires a hormone called insulin to act as a key that unlocks the cells and allows the glucose inside. When your blood glucose levels rise after a meal, the pancreas begins to produce insulin. Insulin removes the glucose from the blood and takes it to the cells that need it.
For someone with diabetes, the pancreas either does not produce enough insulin (or any) to remove the glucose from their blood, or they have cells that have become resistant to insulin, a condition called insulin resistance. In some cases, both factors may be true.
What Is Gestational Diabetes?
Unlike type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disorder, or type 2 diabetes, which develops over time, gestational diabetes is diagnosed only in pregnant women who have never had diabetes.
During pregnancy, the body grows an organ called the placenta. The placenta is a fully functioning endocrine organ capable of releasing hormones that affect both the mother’s and baby’s bodies.
Some of these hormones may cause cells in the mother’s body to become resistant to insulin and may cause excess glucose storage in the blood. If the pancreas can’t keep up with the glucose demand, and if the cells can’t efficiently use the insulin, the mother may develop gestational diabetes.
Who Is at Risk for Gestational Diabetes?
Only pregnant women who have never had diabetes are diagnosed with gestational diabetes. It’s unclear why some pregnant women will develop this condition and others will not, but some factors place a person at higher risk for gestational diabetes:
- Being overweight or obese
- Having a sedentary lifestyle
- Being African American, Pacific Islander, Asian American, Hispanic, or American Indian
- A family history of diabetes
- A previous diagnosis of gestational diabetes
- Previously giving birth to a high birth weight baby (a baby weighing over eight pounds 13 ounces)
- A diagnosis of prediabetes
- Having polycystic ovary syndrome (PCO)
- Not having proper prenatal care
You can reduce your risk of developing gestational diabetes by maintaining a healthy weight before becoming pregnant, eating a balanced diet, and getting plenty of physical activity.
How Is Gestational Diabetes Diagnosed?
Your doctor will administer a glucose tolerance test at about 24 weeks of pregnancy. You will drink an oral glucose solution for this test and then have your blood drawn. A blood test is the only way to determine whether or not you have gestational diabetes.
Does Gestational Diabetes Go Away?
In most cases, gestational diabetes goes away once your baby arrives. However, if you have gestational diabetes, you are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes later in life, so it will be important for you to have regular blood draws and take steps to manage your health care once your baby arrives.
How Does Gestational Diabetes Affect Your Baby?
Having gestational diabetes causes your blood sugar levels to be higher than normal, but there are greater risks to your baby. Babies born to mothers whose gestational diabetes is not well regulated are at a higher risk of developing certain negative health markers both in utero and after birth.
One of the most common side effects of having gestational diabetes that is not well managed is giving birth to a large baby. Babies that weigh over eight pounds 13 ounces may push against the walls of the uterus too soon and trick the body into thinking the pregnancy is further along than it is.
This could cause pregnancy complications like preterm labor, having a baby before your due date, and can cause birth-related injuries to the mother and the baby.
Larger babies are harder to deliver vaginally and are at higher risk of developing birth-related injuries like shoulder dystocia. This happens when the baby’s shoulders get caught on the mother’s pelvis during delivery.
When this happens, babies can sustain damage to the collarbone and to certain nerves that connect to the shoulder, which could result in permanent nerve damage in the shoulders and arms.
A special protein inside your baby’s lungs, called surfactants, helps ensure their lungs fully expand and do not collapse. After birth, a baby born to a mother with untreated, gestational diabetes may have trouble breathing as they don’t have enough surfactant in their lungs to support them.
Sometimes babies are born with yellowed skin and eyes. This is an indication that their livers are not fully functioning. Normally, this is easily corrected in the hospital, but there are risks associated with jaundice if it is severe.
Low blood sugar at birth can happen if the baby is used to getting more sugar than normal from their mother’s blood. If your baby has low blood sugar after birth, their doctor may immediately request you begin breastfeeding or formula feeding. They may also give the baby a glucose supplement.
Health Problems Later in Life
Babies exposed to gestational diabetes that isn’t well managed may have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. Maintaining a healthy weight may also be difficult, placing them at risk of becoming overweight or obese.
While it is rare, gestational diabetes does carry an increased risk of having a stillborn baby. Although having gestational diabetes does not carry risks of congenital disabilities, the risks of injuries and premature birth make it important for you to keep your blood sugar levels within a healthy range.
How Does Gestational Diabetes Affect Your Body?
Having gestational diabetes places your baby at risk for health problems in utero and later in life, but there are also some risks to your health.
High Blood Pressure
Gestational diabetes increases your risk of developing high blood pressure, but it also places you at risk of a life-threatening condition called preeclampsia. This condition causes other organs to fail and requires immediate medical attention.
If your baby is large, you might not be able to deliver vaginally. A doctor may suggest that a cesarean delivery is the safest option to reduce the risk of birth trauma or damage to the mother’s body.
Diabetes Later In Life
Once you have had gestational diabetes, you’ll be at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. As such, it’s important to keep your regularly scheduled checkups and stay active and healthy. Type 2 diabetes is not curable and carries risk factors for heart disease and obesity.
How Do I Manage Gestational Diabetes?
The first thing to do is speak to your doctor about maintaining a healthy pregnancy while having gestational diabetes. Your doctor may suggest you meet with a dietitian to discuss the importance of your diet during the remainder of your pregnancy.
Staying active will also help your body use glucose and lower blood sugar levels. The American Diabetes Association recommends 150 minutes of exercise per week, which is a great way to lower your risk of gestational diabetes and a great way to help manage it if you do develop it.
Lastly, ensure you get information about diabetes and its long-term impact on you and your baby. A diabetes educator may be a resource available to you through your medical care team or provided by your insurance carrier.
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Healthy Pregnancies, Healthy Babies
Your baby depends on your health in utero and beyond. Even if you’ve developed diabetes during pregnancy, you can still have a safe and healthy pregnancy that sets your baby up for a lifetime of health and wellness.
For more information, head over to our Gestational Diabetes information center at Diabetic.org. Here, you’ll find answers to commonly asked pregnancy-related questions, health information about different types of diabetes, healthy foods for gestational diabetes care, and even education about fertility.
References, Studies and Sources:
Gestational diabetes | March of Dimes.org
Infant of diabetic mother | MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia
Gestational diabetes – Symptoms and causes | Mayo Clinic
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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