When women develop diabetes during pregnancy, this is called gestational diabetes. All forms of diabetes impair the way your body uses glucose (sugar), causing too much of it to remain in the bloodstream. Managing diabetes during pregnancy is especially important because high blood sugar levels can affect a baby’s health in many ways, including:
- Birth weight of over 10 pounds
- Breathing difficulty
- Increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes
- Low glucose levels at birth.
Gestational diabetes complications for the mother may include future diabetes, preeclampsia and urinary tract infections.
Understanding Gestational Diabetes
When we eat, digestion breaks down food into glucose, which is the main source of fuel for the body’s cells. The pancreas secretes a hormone called insulin, which allows glucose to leave the bloodstream and feed the body’s hungry cells. Pregnancy puts a strain on this process, as most hormones produced in the placenta interfere with the action of insulin.
As a pregnancy progresses, the placenta produces more of these hormones. Because of this, slightly elevated blood sugar levels after meals are normal. While some women’s bodies can handle this strain, others develop diabetes during pregnancy, usually during the second half.
Most cases of diabetes during pregnancy usually resolve as soon as the baby is born.
Gestational Diabetes Risk
Although doctors can’t quite yet predict exactly who will show gestational diabetes signs, certain factors increase your risk. These include:
- Age: Women 25 or older have an increased gestational diabetes risk.
- Ethnicity: People of African, Asian, Hispanic and Native American descent are at higher risk.
- Family history: A close family member with type 2 diabetes increases a woman’s gestational diabetes risk.
- Pre-diabetes: A pre-diabetic is more likely to develop gestational diabetes.
- Weight: Obesity with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher increases gestational diabetes risk.
Gestational Diabetes Test and Diagnosis
Most women with gestational diabetes don’t experience any diabetes symptoms, although this condition may rarely cause increased thirst and urination. Because of the lack of gestational diabetes signs, routine prenatal care includes a gestational diabetes test between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy. Those in high-risk groups may be tested earlier.
The gestational diabetes test may include two steps:
- Initial glucose challenge test: This preliminary screening requires you to drink a sugary solution. An hour later, your doctor will test your blood sugar. Levels below 130 to 140 mg/dl are usually considered normal. Higher levels may indicate a higher gestational diabetes risk, and your doctor will recommend a follow-up test.
- Follow-up glucose challenge test: After fasting overnight, your doctor will test your blood sugar. After you drink a highly concentrated sugary solution, the doctor will check your blood sugar levels every hour for the next three hours. If two of the three readings are higher than normal, this indicates gestational diabetes.
Treating Diabetes During Pregnancy
Managing gestational diabetes requires you to keep your blood sugar levels normal, or as close to normal as possible. In addition to monitoring your blood sugar, your doctor may also recommend a special diet and regular exercise.
If these measures are not enough, you may be prescribed oral medication or insulin to manage gestational diabetes symptoms.
American Diabetes Association. (n.d.). Gestational diabetes. Retrieved August 31, 2007, from http://www.diabetes.org/gestational-diabetes.jsp.
Mayo Clinic. (2009). Gestational diabetes. Retrieved March 22, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/gestational-diabetes/DS00316.
National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NDIC). (2006). What I need to know about gestational diabetes. Retrieved August 31, 2007, from http://diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/dm/pubs/gestational/.