What is gestational diabetes?

Gestational diabetes occurs only during pregnancy, and it usually goes away once you’ve delivered your baby.

Pregnant women with gestational diabetes have higher than normal blood sugar. This is because their bodies aren’t producing enough insulin. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar.

Gestational diabetes can happen at almost any time during pregnancy, but it typically occurs between 24 to 28 weeks. This is also when testing typically takes place.

Getting tested for gestational diabetes is an important part of prenatal care. Doctors test all pregnant women at least once during pregnancy. Your doctor will consider your risk factors when determining when you should have this test and how often you should have it. Learn what to expect during this test and how to prepare.

What are the symptoms of gestational diabetes?

Many women who have gestational diabetes have no symptoms. If symptoms do appear, it’s possible you may overlook them because they’re similar to typical pregnancy symptoms.

These symptoms may include:

  • frequent urination
  • extreme thirst
  • fatigue
  • snoring

You should call your doctor if you’re experiencing these symptoms to a greater degree than is normal for you.

What causes gestational diabetes?

The exact cause of gestational diabetes is unknown, but it may be due to hormones your placenta produces. These hormones help your baby grow, but they can also stop insulin from doing its job. If your body can’t make enough insulin, the sugar in your bloodstream stays put. The sugar is then unable to convert into energy in the cell. This is called insulin resistance.

If it’s left untreated, gestational diabetes can have significant consequences for both you and your baby. Once your doctor knows you have this condition, they’ll work with you on a treatment plan to ensure your and your baby’s health.

What are the risk factors for gestational diabetes?

Any pregnant woman can get gestational diabetes. That’s why doctors test every woman who’s pregnant. Gestational diabetes affects about 5 to 18 percent of women during pregnancy.

Certain factors might increase your risk and require you to get tested during the first prenatal visit. Your doctor may also test you several times afterward. The risk factors include:

  • being obese
  • being over 25 years old
  • having a family history of diabetes
  • having a history of gestational diabetes during a previous pregnancy
  • gaining a significant amount of weight in early adulthood and between pregnancies
  • gaining an excessive amount of weight while pregnant
  • having a previous delivery of a baby who was over 9 pounds
  • having high blood pressure
  • being on glucocorticoids

What happens during the test?

Doctors use different types of screening tests. Many doctors use a two-step approach, starting with the glucose challenge test. This test determines your likelihood of having the disorder.

Glucose challenge test

You don’t need to do anything to prepare for this test. You can eat and drink normally beforehand. When you arrive at your doctor’s office, you’ll drink a syrupy solution that contains glucose. One hour later, you’ll take a blood test. If your blood sugar is high, your doctor will schedule a glucose tolerance test.

Glucose tolerance test

This test measures your body’s response to glucose. It’s used to determine how well your body handles glucose after a meal.

Your doctor will ask you to fast overnight to prepare for this test. Ask your doctor if you can sip water during this time. You should remind your doctor of any medications you’re taking and ask if you should stop them during this time.

After arriving at your doctor’s office, your doctor will measure your blood sugar. Afterward, you’ll be asked to drink an 8-ounce glass of glucose solution. Your doctor will measure your glucose levels once per hour for the next three hours.

If one of the tests indicates that you have high blood sugar, your doctor may test you again in four weeks. Your doctor will most likely diagnose you with gestational diabetes if two or more tests indicate that you have high blood sugar.

Some doctors skip the glucose challenge test and only perform the glucose tolerance test. Talk to your doctor about which protocol makes sense for you.

What are the treatment options for gestational diabetes?

If you have gestational diabetes, your doctor will monitor your condition frequently. They’ll use sonograms to pay close attention to your baby’s growth.

During pregnancy, you may also self-monitor at home. You can use a tiny needle called a lancet to prick your finger for a droplet of blood. You can use a blood glucose monitor to analyze this droplet of blood. People usually perform this test when they wake up and after meals.

If lifestyle changes aren’t working, your doctor may recommend that you administer insulin injections. Between 10 and 20 percent of pregnant women with gestational diabetes need this type of help to bring blood sugar down. They may also prescribe oral medication to control your blood sugar.

What are the complications of untreated gestational diabetes?

It’s important to keep gestational diabetes under control. If it’s left untreated, the complications may include:

  • high blood pressure
  • premature birth
  • slightly higher rates of fetal and neonatal death

Untreated gestational diabetes can also result in the baby having a high birth weight. This is called macrosomia. Macrosomia may result in shoulder damage during birth and usually requires a cesarean delivery. Babies with macrosomia have a higher likelihood of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes.

What is the outlook?

Gestational diabetes usually goes away after delivery. Eating right and exercising continue to remain important for your health after delivery.

Your baby’s lifestyle should also be healthy. Choose foods high in fiber and low in fat for the both of you. You should also avoid sugary sweets and simple starches whenever possible. Making movement and exercise a part of your family’s life is a great way to support each other in your pursuit of healthy living.

Keep reading: Staying fit during pregnancy »

How can you prevent gestational diabetes or reduce its impact?

Lifestyle changes may help prevent gestational diabetes or reduce its impact. These changes include:

  • losing weight before pregnancy
  • exercising
  • setting a goal for pregnancy weight gain
  • eating high-fiber, low-fat foods
  • reducing the size of your food portions

You should incorporate the following into your diet:

  • whole grains, such as quinoa
  • lean protein, such as tofu, chicken, and fish
  • low-fat dairy
  • fruits
  • vegetables

Simple, refined carbohydrates, found in sugary desserts and soda, tend to spike blood sugar. You should limit those types of foods in your diet.

Walking, swimming, and prenatal yoga can be great options for exercise. Check with your doctor before starting a new exercise regimen.

Keep reading: Staying fit during pregnancy »