There seems to be a connection between gestational diabetes and childhood obesity. Studies suggest that gestational diabetes increases the risk of childhood obesity.

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Gestational diabetes happens when someone who does not have type 2 diabetes develops insulin resistance and high blood sugar levels during pregnancy.

In addition to affecting your health — possibly even for years after pregnancy — it may affect your baby’s health. Some research suggests that babies born to people with gestational diabetes have an increased chance of childhood obesity.

Read on for more information about gestational diabetes and childhood obesity and how they are linked.

Several studies suggest that if you have gestational diabetes, your child may have an increased chance of developing childhood obesity. In one 2020 study involving 1,114 mother-child pairs, researchers found that gestational diabetes was a major risk factor for childhood obesity even if children didn’t have other risk factors for obesity.

The authors of a 2018 observational study reviewed data from 1,156 women and their offspring and found that, compared to babies born to mothers without gestational diabetes, those born to mothers with the condition had higher:

  • weight
  • body mass index (BMI)
  • waist circumference
  • body fat
  • skinfold measurements
  • risk for overweight and obesity

In a 2019 study, researchers reviewed information from more than 40,000 women who delivered babies between 1995 and 2004 in Northern California and followed their children until 5–7 years of age.

They found that elevated blood sugar levels in pregnancy — even if they were not high enough to qualify as gestational diabetes — increased childhood obesity risk in 5- to 7-year-olds by about 13%. Additionally, they found that if a mother had gestational diabetes, their child’s risk of developing obesity jumped to 52%.

Language matters

You’ll notice we use the binary terms “women” and “mothers” in this article. While we realize these terms may not match your gender experience, they’re terms used by the researchers whose data was cited. We try to be as specific as possible when reporting on research participants and clinical findings.

Unfortunately, the studies and surveys referenced in this article didn’t report data for or may not have had participants who are transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, or genderless.

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It’s unclear exactly why gestational diabetes may increase childhood obesity risk. One 2019 animal study suggests that exposure to high blood sugar in the womb may disrupt the development of the hypothalamus (the area of the brain that regulates body weight).

The authors of the 2018 observational study mentioned above suggest that the “metabolic imprinting” of high blood sugar in the womb may lead to long-term effects on the physiologic and metabolic responses of the child. Essentially, they say, the abundance of blood sugar may lead to overfeeding of the fetus, which influences development.

Babies born to people with gestational diabetes often have a higher birth weight and may develop high blood sugar. Both could have health effects in early childhood and beyond.

If you have a diagnosis of gestational diabetes, there are ways you can manage your blood sugar levels and help protect your health and the health of your baby. You’re not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the rate of gestational diabetes increased from 6% in 2016 to 8.3% in 2021.

The CDC recommends lifestyle strategies such as eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins; avoiding highly processed foods with added sugars; and exercising regularly. Some people may need medications, such as metformin or injectable insulin, to help manage blood sugar levels.

Nursing your baby may also help. According to some research cited in a 2017 review, nursing your baby exclusively for at least 6 months may help reduce their obesity risk.

The authors of a 2014 review found that babies who were fed breastmilk had a 22% lower risk for childhood obesity. And an older 2005 review noted that each month a baby nursed reduced their childhood obesity risk by 4%.

However, the authors of the 2017 review mention that no studies have specifically looked into the effect of nursing on babies who were exposed to gestational diabetes while in the womb.

They also point to the importance of lifestyle habits in reducing childhood obesity risk. While more research is needed, they say that maintaining healthy eating habits and including physical activity in daily life likely have a stronger influence on a child’s risk of obesity than exposure to gestational diabetes during development.

A child is considered to have obesity if their BMI is in the 95th percentile or higher. Childhood obesity can have a significant health impact.

Learn more about childhood obesity.

According to the CDC, having obesity as a child can increase the risk for certain health conditions, including:

Childhood obesity may increase the risk for serious chronic health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. However, with education, support, and empathy, children can learn to eat balanced meals and become and stay active — habits that can support their overall health.

With the help of parents, teachers, caregivers, and healthcare professionals, kids who are at risk for obesity can feel empowered to make their own choices for better health.

How is obesity a risk factor for gestational diabetes?

According to a 2010 review, if you have overweight or obesity before becoming pregnant, you may already be experiencing changes in your body related to a reduced sensitivity to insulin, which may make it difficult for your body to regulate blood sugar levels.

Those changes — which are the hallmark of type 2 diabetes — can set you up to develop gestational diabetes once you become pregnant.

Can excessive weight gain cause gestational diabetes?

Yes, having overweight or obesity or rapidly gaining weight during pregnancy can contribute to the development of gestational diabetes, according to a 2010 study.

Does having gestational diabetes increase your risk for type 2 diabetes?

Your blood sugar levels will likely return to a typical range once your baby is born. But, according to the CDC, about 50% of people with gestational diabetes will go on to develop type 2 diabetes at some point in their lives.

Studies suggest that there’s a link between gestational diabetes and childhood obesity. Researchers are still looking into the reason for this link, but it could be related to the effect that high blood sugar in the womb has on the development of the fetus.

If you have gestational diabetes, taking steps to manage your blood sugar will go a long way for your health and the health of your baby.