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What Is Gestational Diabetes?

Learn about the condition and how to keep mom and baby healthy.

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Gestational diabetes affects close to 6  percent of pregnant women. It can usually be controlled by smart eating and regular exercise. Learn about the condition and how you can keep you and your baby healthy.

What is gestational diabetes?

Gestational diabetes is a form of diabetes that develops in pregnant women who have not already been diagnosed with diabetes. Gestational diabetes usually begins about halfway through the pregnancy. Your glucose, or blood sugar, becomes too high. That can hurt you and your baby.

Scientists believe that hormonal changes during pregnancy cause the condition. Genetics and the environment can also play a role. So can the metabolic demands of pregnancy.

Our bodies break down food we eat into glucose. Everyone needs glucose for energy. Glucose is processed by insulin, which is made in the pancreas. During pregnancy, your body does not use insulin as well. Then, if the pancreas cannot make more insulin, you will have gestational diabetes. And your average blood sugar levels will increase.

After you give birth, the diabetes will probably go away. But you may have a higher chance of getting diabetes with another pregnancy or developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

What are the symptoms?

A woman with gestational diabetes often has no symptoms. But there are risk factors that tell your doctor you are more likely to develop it.

Am I at risk for gestational diabetes?

You have a greater chance of developing gestational diabetes, for example, if you:

  • Are overweight or obese
  • Are a certain age (the risk is higher for women ages 25 and older)
  • Have given birth to a baby heavier than 9 pounds
  • Had a miscarriage or stillbirth in a previous pregnancy
  • Have high blood pressure
  • Have a history of heart disease
  • Had gestational diabetes in an earlier pregnancy
  • Have a parent or sibling with type 2 diabetes
  • Have prediabetes; this happens when your blood glucose level is abnormally high, but not high enough to indicate diabetes
  • Are of African American, Asian American, Hispanic/Latina, American Indian or Pacific Islander American descent
  • Have polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal disorder

Screening and diagnosis

Screening for gestational diabetes is generally done when you are between 24 and 28 weeks pregnant. However, if you have risk factors for gestational diabetes, your doctor may screen and test as early as your first prenatal visit. Screening tests can vary, but one test that is frequently used involves having you drink a special, sugary drink; waiting a specific amount of time; then taking a sample of your blood and checking your glucose levels. If you have a history of a gastric bypass operation, your doctor will choose another way to screen for gestational diabetes.

Effects during and after pregnancy

Treating and managing gestational diabetes is important for you and your baby. If it is not well controlled, it can result in the following:

  • Preeclampsia. This condition is marked in the mother by high blood pressure, and often swelling of the fingers and toes. It can cause premature birth and seizures or a stroke in the mother during labor. 
  • Vary large baby. With gestational diabetes that is not well-controlled, the baby gets too much nutrition in the form of glucose and may become too large.
  • Cesarean birth. If the baby is too large, vaginal delivery can be hard on the mother and dangerous for the baby. A woman may need to have a Cesarean birth. The baby is delivered surgically through the mother’s abdomen.
  • Breathing problems in the newborn. This is also called respiratory distress syndrome.
  • Low blood sugar. Low blood sugar is a dangerous condition caused by insulin or other diabetes medications. If not treated right away, it can be very serious and even life-threatening. The baby may also develop low blood sugar shortly after birth. The infant’s blood sugar level should be closely watched for several hours after delivery.
  • Overweight child. Your baby has a greater chance of being overweight and developing type 2 diabetes as he or she gets older.
  • Stillbirth.

How is it managed?

Gestational diabetes can be kept under control by eating a healthy diet, an active lifestyle and, for some expectant mothers, additional measures.

  • Monitoring blood glucose levels (either yourself and/or at regular doctor visits) and the baby’s growth and well-being.
  • Nutrition. A healthy meal plan is one that is high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and low in fats and sweets. Work with your health care team to design a plan that keeps your blood sugar in check.
  • Exercise. Getting or staying active is an important part of managing your glucose levels. You should strive for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise most days of the week. Aerobics are things that get your heart pumping, like brisk walking, swimming and dancing. Avoid sports in which you could get hit in the stomach or fall.
  • Insulin. If needed, your doctor will prescribe insulin shots. You will be taught how to give them to yourself.

Additional tests. Six to 12 weeks after giving birth, you should have a diabetes test. If it’s normal, you should get tested for diabetes every three years. Your doctor may do extra tests to monitor your baby’s health. These include kick counts; ultrasound exams to see if your baby is bigger than normal; and a non-stress test, which checks the baby’s heart rate. Your son or daughter should be checked throughout childhood for diabetes risk factors, such as obesity.

By Emily Gurnon, Contributing Writer

American Diabetes Association. Standards of medical care in diabetes–2016 Diabetes Care: 2016:39:S1-S112. Accessed: August 8, 2016.
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Understanding task force draft recommendations. Screening for gestational diabetes. Accessed: August 8, 2016.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Gestational diabetes. Accessed: August 8, 2016.
National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. What I need to know about gestational diabetes. Accessed: August 8, 2016.

Last Updated: August 9, 2016