Gestational diabetes is diabetes diagnosed for the first-time during pregnancy (gestation). Like other types of diabetes, gestational diabetes affects how your cells use sugar (glucose). Gestational diabetes causes high blood sugar that can affect your pregnancy and your baby's health.
While any pregnancy complication is concerning, there's good news. During pregnancy you can help control gestational diabetes by eating healthy foods, exercising and, if necessary, taking medication. Controlling blood sugar can keep you and your baby healthy and prevent a difficult delivery.
If you have gestational diabetes during pregnancy, generally your blood sugar returns to its usual level soon after delivery. But if you've had gestational diabetes, you have a higher risk of getting type 2 diabetes. You'll need to be tested for changes in blood sugar more often.
Most of the time, gestational diabetes doesn't cause noticeable signs or symptoms. Increased thirst and more-frequent urination are possible symptoms.
When to see a doctor
If possible, seek health care early — when you first think about trying to get pregnant — so your health care provider can check your risk of gestational diabetes along with your overall wellness. Once you're pregnant, your health care provider will check you for gestational diabetes as part of your prenatal care.
If you develop gestational diabetes, you may need checkups more often. These are most likely to occur during the last three months of pregnancy, when your health care provider will monitor your blood sugar level and your baby's health.
Researchers don't yet know why some women get gestational diabetes and others don't. Excess weight before pregnancy often plays a role. Usually, various hormones work to keep blood sugar levels in check. But during pregnancy, hormone levels change, making it harder for the body to process blood sugar efficiently. This makes blood sugar rise.
Risk factors for gestational diabetes include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Not being physically active
- Having prediabetes
- Having had gestational diabetes during a previous pregnancy
- Having polycystic ovary syndrome
- Having an immediate family member with diabetes
- Having previously delivered a baby weighing more than 4.1 kilograms
Gestational diabetes that's not carefully managed can lead to high blood sugar levels. High blood sugar can cause problems for you and your baby, including an increased likelihood of needing a surgery to deliver (C-section).
Complications that may affect your baby
If you have gestational diabetes, your baby may be at increased risk of:
- Excessive birth weight. If your blood sugar level is higher than the standard range, it can cause your baby to grow too large. Very large babies — those who weigh 9 pounds or more — are more likely to become wedged in the birth canal, have birth injuries or need a C-section birth.
- Early (preterm) birth. High blood sugar may increase the risk of early labor and delivery before the due date. Or early delivery may be recommended because the baby is large.
- Serious breathing difficulties. Babies born early may experience respiratory distress syndrome — a condition that makes breathing difficult.
- Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). Sometimes babies have low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) shortly after birth. Severe episodes of hypoglycemia may cause seizures in the baby. Prompt feedings and sometimes an intravenous glucose solution can return the baby's blood sugar level to normal.
- Obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life. Babies have a higher risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life.
- Untreated gestational diabetes can result in a baby's death either before or shortly after birth.
Complications that may affect you
Gestational diabetes may also increase your risk of:
- High blood pressure and preeclampsia. Gestational diabetes raises your risk of high blood pressure, as well as preeclampsia — a serious complication of pregnancy that causes high blood pressure and other symptoms that can threaten both your life and your baby's life.
- Having a surgical delivery (C-section). You're more likely to have a C-section if you have gestational diabetes.
- Future diabetes. If you have gestational diabetes, you're more likely to get it again during a future pregnancy. You also have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes as you get older.
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 in the future.
- Eat healthy foods. Choose foods high in fiber and low in fat and calories. Focus on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Strive for variety to help you achieve your goals without compromising taste or nutrition. Watch portion sizes.
- Keep active. Exercising before and during pregnancy can help protect you from developing gestational diabetes. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days of the week. Take a brisk daily walk. Ride your bike. Swim laps. Short bursts of activity — such as parking further away from the store when you run errands or taking a short walk break — all add up.
- Start pregnancy at a healthy weight. If you're planning to get pregnant, losing extra weight beforehand may help you have a healthier pregnancy. Focus on making lasting changes to your eating habits that can help you through pregnancy, such as eating more vegetables and fruits.
- Don't gain more weight than recommended. Gaining some weight during pregnancy is typical and healthy. But gaining too much weight too quickly can increase your risk of gestational diabetes. Ask your health care provider what a reasonable amount of weight gain is for you.