Gestational diabetes develops during pregnancy (gestation). Like other types of diabetes, gestational diabetes affects how your cells use sugar (glucose) — your body's main fuel. Gestational diabetes causes high blood sugar that can affect your pregnancy and your baby's health.
Any pregnancy complication is concerning, but there's good news. Expectant moms can help control gestational diabetes by eating healthy foods, exercising and, if necessary, using medication. Taking good care of yourself can ensure a healthy pregnancy for you and a healthy start for your baby.
In gestational diabetes, blood sugar usually returns to normal soon after delivery. But if you've had gestational diabetes, you're at risk for future type 2 diabetes. You'll continue working with your health care team to monitor and manage your blood sugar.
For most women, gestational diabetes doesn't cause noticeable signs or symptoms. Rarely, gestational diabetes may cause excessive thirst or increased urination.
When to see a doctor
Your doctor may refer you to additional health professionals who specialize in diabetes management, such as an endocrinologist, a registered dietitian or a diabetes educator. They can help you learn to manage your blood sugar level during your pregnancy.
To make sure that your blood sugar level has returned to normal after your baby is born, your health care team will check your blood sugar right after delivery and again in six weeks. Once you've had gestational diabetes, it's a good idea to have your blood sugar level tested regularly. The frequency of blood sugar tests will in part depend on your test results soon after you deliver your baby.
Researchers don't yet know exactly why some women develop gestational diabetes. To understand how gestational diabetes occurs, it can help to understand how pregnancy affects your body's normal processing of glucose.
Your body digests the food you eat to produce sugar (glucose) that enters your bloodstream. In response, your pancreas — a large gland behind your stomach — produces insulin. Insulin is a hormone that helps glucose move from your bloodstream into your body's cells, where it's used as energy.
During pregnancy, the placenta that connects your growing baby to your blood supply produces high levels of various other hormones. Almost all of them impair the action of insulin in your cells, raising your blood sugar. Modest elevation of blood sugar after meals is normal during pregnancy.
As your baby grows, the placenta produces more and more insulin-blocking hormones. In gestational diabetes, the placental hormones provoke a rise in blood sugar to a level that can affect the growth and welfare of your baby. Gestational diabetes usually develops during the last half of pregnancy — sometimes as early as the 20th week, but usually not until later.
Any woman can develop gestational diabetes, but some women are at greater risk. Risk factors for gestational diabetes include:
Most women who have gestational diabetes deliver healthy babies. However, gestational diabetes that's not carefully managed can lead to uncontrolled blood sugar levels and cause problems for you and your baby, including an increased likelihood of needing delivery by C-section.
Complications that may affect your baby
Untreated gestational diabetes can result in a baby's death either before or shortly after birth.
Complications that may affect you
Preparing for your appointment
In most circumstances, you'll find out that you have gestational diabetes as the result of a screening test performed routinely during your pregnancy. If your blood sugar tests high, you'll likely be asked to come in for an appointment promptly. Your doctor will also schedule more-frequent regular prenatal appointments to monitor the course of your pregnancy.
Because appointments can be brief and there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to prepare ahead of time for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment and know what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Questions to ask your doctor
In addition to the questions you've prepared ahead of time, don't hesitate to ask your doctor to clarify anything you don't understand.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Tests and diagnosis
Medical experts haven't established a single set of screening guidelines for gestational diabetes. Some question whether gestational diabetes screening is needed if you're younger than 25 and have no risk factors. Others say that screening all pregnant women — no matter their age — is the best way to catch all cases of gestational diabetes.
When to screen
Routine screening for gestational diabetes
If you're diagnosed with gestational diabetes
If you're having trouble controlling your blood sugar, or you need to take insulin, or you have other pregnancy complications, you may need additional tests to evaluate your baby's general health. These tests assess the function of the placenta, the organ that delivers oxygen and nutrients to your baby by connecting the baby's blood supply to yours. If your gestational diabetes is difficult to control, it may affect the placenta and endanger the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the baby. Tests to monitor your baby's well-being include:
Blood sugar testing after you give birth
Treatments and drugs
It's essential to monitor and control your blood sugar to keep your baby healthy and avoid complications during your pregnancy and delivery. You'll also want to keep a close eye on your future blood sugar levels. Your treatment strategies may include:
Coping and support
It's not easy to learn you have a condition that can affect your unborn baby's health. And worrying about your baby can make it harder to take care of yourself. You may find yourself eating the wrong foods or lacking the energy to exercise.
Keep in mind that the very steps that will help control your blood sugar level — such as eating healthy foods and exercising regularly — can help relieve stress and nourish your baby. These activities can also help prevent type 2 diabetes in the future. That makes exercise and good nutrition powerful tools for a healthy pregnancy as well as a healthy life — for you and your baby.
You'll probably feel better if you learn as much as you can about gestational diabetes. Talk to your health care team. Read books and articles about gestational diabetes. Join a support group for women with gestational diabetes. The more you know, the more control you'll feel.
There are no guarantees when it comes to preventing gestational diabetes — but the more healthy habits you can adopt before pregnancy, the better. If you've had gestational diabetes, these healthy choices may also reduce your risk of having it again in future pregnancies or developing type 2 diabetes down the road.
Last Updated: 2011-03-24
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