Pregnancy can be an exciting time for growing families, but many expectant mothers are understandably nervous, especially if it is their first child. While most pregnancies proceed uneventfully, there are some conditions that can develop during pregnancy that may impact the health of the mother and the developing baby.
One of the most common conditions that develop during pregnancy is gestational diabetes. There are steps you can take to get your gestational diabetes under control and stay healthy.
Learn more about gestational diabetes using our handy guide.
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Gestational diabetes is a condition characterized by abnormally high blood sugar levels that develop during pregnancy. It is a relatively common condition, affecting nearly 10% of pregnancies in the US, which translates to millions of women every year.
During pregnancy, your hormones undergo many changes to support the developing baby, such as increases in cortisol, estrogen, and human placental lactogen. These hormones can impact your body’s ability to use insulin effectively. Insulin is responsible for allowing blood sugar into your body's cells to give them energy, so insulin resistance can keep your blood sugar levels high.
In most cases, pregnant women can produce enough insulin to keep up with elevated blood sugar levels arising from insulin resistance. Those that cannot develop gestational diabetes.
Gestational diabetes is more common than many people realize. Even women who don't have diabetes before pregnancy can develop gestational diabetes.
This condition is different from type 1 and type 2 diabetes:
Type 1 diabetes: This is an autoimmune disease that often develops in childhood
Type 2 diabetes: This is considered a chronic disease, and it more commonly appears in adulthood, though children are increasingly receiving a type 2 diabetes diagnosis
Although any pregnant woman can develop gestational diabetes, there are certain risk factors that can make you more likely to develop the condition, including:
Having an immediate family member with diabetes
Being over 25 years old
Being African American, Hispanic, American Indian, or Pacific Islander
Having gestational diabetes during a past pregnancy
Leading a sedentary lifestyle
Being overweight or obese
Being overweight before getting pregnant
Having polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
Having previously delivered a baby greater than 4.1 kg (9 pounds)
Having one or more of these risk factors doesn't mean you will automatically develop gestational diabetes during your pregnancy. However, go for regular checkups with your physician while you are pregnant to ensure that your blood sugar stays at healthy levels for you and your baby.
It can be difficult to tell whether or not you have gestational diabetes without getting tested, as most women don't develop any noticeable symptoms, especially early on. Those who do experience symptoms often report:
Because expectant mothers cannot detect whether they have gestational diabetes based on symptoms alone, doctors test all pregnant women for the condition when they are around 24–28 weeks pregnant. This is normally the earliest that gestational diabetes is diagnosed unless you have had the condition before, in which case it could be diagnosed earlier.
Gestational diabetes is diagnosed with a simple blood test called the glucose tolerance test (GTT). This test requires that you fast for at least eight hours, followed by a blood draw. Next, your doctor will give you a sweet liquid that contains a high concentration of glucose. Your blood will then be drawn a few times over the next few hours to see how your body processes the glucose.
If your GTT reveals that you have high blood sugar levels at any point, you will receive a diagnosis of gestational diabetes. Your doctor will discuss the results with you and suggest strategies to manage the condition.
Although expectant mothers don't often experience symptoms or signs of gestational diabetes, the developing baby and mother can experience long-lasting effects if the condition isn't adequately controlled.
If your gestational diabetes remains uncontrolled, you are more likely to experience:
A cesarean (C-section) birth
Preeclampsia (high blood pressure and other symptoms) throughout pregnancy
Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
Type 2 diabetes after the birth (and for up to two years after delivery)
Untreated, gestational diabetes can increase your baby’s risk of:
Type 2 diabetes
Properly controlling your blood sugar through diet, exercise, and other interventions can greatly reduce the odds of your or your baby suffering the negative consequences that uncontrolled gestational diabetes can bring.
After learning you're pregnant, you should visit your doctor at regular intervals to check on your developing baby's progress and status.
It is often suggested to see your doctor about a month after your first missed period and positive result on a pregnancy test, but people with other health conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, should visit their doctor as soon as possible after learning they are pregnant.
People taking prescription medications should also schedule an appointment sooner rather than later to see if they need to adjust their dosage or stop certain medications during pregnancy.
For the first 28 weeks of pregnancy, your doctor will likely recommend a prenatal visit every four weeks. During weeks 28 to 36, your doctor may want to see you every two weeks. You will probably visit your doctor once per week during weeks 36 to 40. These scheduled visits can vary from person to person, but this is the general outline that most pregnant women follow.
After receiving a diagnosis of gestational diabetes, your doctor, a diabetes nurse, an endocrinologist, and a dietician will work with you to develop a comprehensive treatment plan to keep you and your developing baby healthy.
Some common treatment options for gestational diabetes include:
Women with gestational diabetes should eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and some low-fat dairy and lean protein.
They should limit the amount of simple and complex sugars in each meal.
Your doctor can help you determine a safe physical activity level based on your weight, age, and fitness level before pregnancy.
A small device called a blood glucose monitor checks your blood sugar levels with a prick of your finger. You will need to monitor your blood sugar levels at home after eating to make sure that they do not get too high. You will be asked to record this in a booklet and show it to your doctor during your antenatal visits.
If your body can't make enough insulin on its own, your doctor may recommend injections of insulin to regulate blood sugar levels.
A few weeks after your baby is born – usually between 6 and 12 weeks – your doctor will check your blood sugar levels again to see if they have returned to normal. Most women who develop gestational diabetes experience a return to normal blood sugar levels by this time after delivery, though they should still undergo a diabetes risk assessment every three years to ensure their blood sugar stays at normal levels.
If your blood sugar levels are not back to normal, your doctor will once again work with you to develop a management plan that will likely involve:
Blood sugar monitoring
Your risk of developing type 2 diabetes following delivery of your baby is higher if you have had gestational diabetes.
Developing gestational diabetes can seem scary, but the diagnosis doesn't necessarily mean that you or your baby will experience the negative consequences that can arise from the condition.
By working closely with your physician, you will develop a diet and exercise plan that can help you manage your blood sugar levels. Your doctor can help you monitor your blood glucose levels and provide insulin injections to keep your blood sugar at the proper levels. This will ensure you and your developing baby remain healthy.
Millions of women develop gestational diabetes every year and still deliver happy, healthy babies, but it's important to take the condition seriously and follow the recommendations of your doctor.
Nearly 10 percent of pregnancies in the U.S. are affected by gestational diabetes every year. So know that you’re not alone. | Amerian Diabetes Association
Gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM) | Johns Hopkins Medicine
Managing gestational diabetes | Diabetes Australia
New research uncovers concerning increases in youth living with diabetes in the U.S. | Center for Disease Control and Prevention