Your blood sugar levels can become higher than usual during pregnancy. Gestational diabetes isn’t totally preventable, but there are ways to help lower your risk.

What is gestational diabetes?

Gestational diabetes is a temporary condition that can occur during pregnancy. If you have gestational diabetes, it means you have higher blood sugar levels than usual during pregnancy.

Gestational diabetes affects approximately 2 to 10% of pregnancies in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

If you do have gestational diabetes, it’s important to get treated quickly because it can cause problems for the health of both you and your baby.

The causes of gestational diabetes aren’t fully understood and can’t be prevented entirely. But you can lower your risk of developing it. Keep reading to learn more about this condition and what you can do to decrease your risk.

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Gestational diabetes is associated with a variety of risk factors that could be genetic or environmental, including:

Some ethnic groups are also at a higher risk of developing gestational diabetes, including:

  • African Americans
  • Asian Americans
  • Hispanics
  • Native Americans
  • Pacific Islanders

According to 2019 research, the ideal time to start a healthy lifestyle is around pregnancy or family planning.

The best way to lower your risk of gestational diabetes is to stay healthy and prepare your body for pregnancy.

If you have overweight or obesity, you can take the following steps to prepare for pregnancy:

Talk with a doctor or healthcare professional about the best way for you to reach a moderate weight because even a few pounds can make a difference in your risk level for gestational diabetes.

If you’re inactive, regardless of whether or not you have overweight, you should also work toward regular physical activity at least 3 times a week. Exercise moderately for at least 30 to 60 minutes each time. Adopt a nutrient-dense diet that focuses on vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

In your first trimester, your healthcare professional will help you decide the best diet, blood sugar monitoring, and activities for you. You may want to ask them if seeing a dietitian would be right for you.

Once you’re pregnant, don’t try to lose weight unless a doctor recommends it.

If you’ve had gestational diabetes during a previous pregnancy and you’re planning to become pregnant again, tell a doctor. They’ll perform early screening to identify your risk factors and ensure you have a healthy pregnancy.

If you have gestational diabetes risk factors, then your healthcare professional may run tests in your first trimester to see if you have the condition. Most pregnant people will receive routine blood tests, including testing for gestational diabetes, in the second trimester.

All types of diabetes are related to the hormone insulin. It regulates the amount of glucose in your blood by allowing sugar to move from the blood and into your cells.

Insufficient insulin or ineffective use of insulin by your body’s cells leads to high glucose levels in the blood. As you gain weight, your body uses insulin less effectively, so it needs to produce more in order to regulate the sugar in your blood.

In addition, when you’re pregnant, your placenta produces insulin-blocking hormones. This makes sugar stay in your blood long after a meal.

Your baby gets nutrients from your blood, so it’s beneficial during pregnancy for nutrients to be in your blood longer so your baby can access them. A certain level of insulin resistance is expected during pregnancy.

Your glucose levels could get too high during pregnancy if:

  • you were already insulin-resistant before becoming pregnant
  • your blood glucose levels were already high before becoming pregnant
  • you have conditions that put you at greater risk of becoming insulin resistant

If your glucose levels become too high, you’ll receive a diagnosis of gestational diabetes.

Generally, you won’t experience any noticeable symptoms of gestational diabetes. Some people may experience mild symptoms from the pregnancy or other pregnancy-associated conditions such as:

However, gestational diabetes can increase your risk of other conditions.

One of the most serious is preeclampsia, a pregnancy-specific disease that causes high blood pressure (hypertension) and can be fatal if not treated quickly. It usually starts after 20 weeks of pregnancy with additional symptoms.

How does gestational diabetes affect the baby?

Gestational diabetes is also associated with macrosomia, a condition in which your baby grows too big. Macrosomia is associated with a higher risk of emergency cesarean delivery.

Gestational diabetes can also lead to your baby having:

In cases of poorly managed gestational diabetes, your baby is at increased risk of stillbirth or neonatal intensive care unit admittance.

Some research has found that babies born to people with gestational diabetes are more likely to develop:

  • obesity
  • metabolic syndrome
  • type 2 diabetes
  • impaired insulin sensitivity and secretion

Because gestational diabetes doesn’t usually have any symptoms, it’s diagnosed by a blood test. A doctor will order a gestational diabetes screening test during your second trimester. If you have certain risk factors, you may have the test done earlier in your first trimester.

The screening can be done in one of two ways.

The first is called a glucose challenge test. During the test, you’ll drink a sugary solution and take a blood draw an hour later. You don’t have to be fasting for this test. If this result is elevated, you’ll have to do a 3-hour glucose test.

The second test option is an oral glucose tolerance test. During this test, you’ll have to be fasting and have a blood draw. Then you’ll drink a sugary solution and have your blood glucose checked 1 hour and 2 hours later. If one of these results is elevated, you’ll receive a diagnosis of gestational diabetes.

Many people are able to manage gestational diabetes through diet and exercise, which can be very effective in managing blood sugar levels.

You’ll need to pay special attention to your carbohydrate intake and your portion sizes. It’s also important for you to avoid eating and drinking certain items, including alcohol, ultra-processed foods, and starches such as white potatoes and white rice.

A doctor will recommend a meal plan and exercise schedule. Exercises that are safe to perform during pregnancy include:

Avoid exercises that involve lying on your back or the potential for falling such as sports with lots of fast changes in direction.

You’ll also need to monitor your blood sugar levels to make sure your glucose isn’t too high.

If diet and exercise alone aren’t effective, you may need to take insulin as well.

A doctor will test your blood sugar levels regularly for the rest of your pregnancy, and you’ll need to test your levels daily at home.

To do this, you’ll use a small needle to take a sample of blood from your finger, which you’ll place on a test strip in a blood glucose meter.

A doctor will tell you what number range to look for. If your glucose is too high, call a doctor right away.

In addition to testing at home, you’ll be visiting a doctor more frequently if you have gestational diabetes. A doctor will probably want to test your glucose levels in the office once a month to confirm your home readings.

You may have more frequent ultrasounds to monitor your baby’s growth. A doctor may do a nonstress test to make sure your baby’s heart rate increases when they’re active.

A doctor may also recommend induction if labor doesn’t start by your due date. This is because post-term delivery can increase your risks when you have gestational diabetes.

Gestational diabetes usually goes away on its own after you give birth. A doctor will test your blood sugar levels 6 to 12 weeks after you give birth to make sure your levels have returned to what they usually are. If this hasn’t happened, you may have type 2 diabetes.

Even if your blood sugar is back to standard after your baby arrives, gestational diabetes puts you at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. You should get tested every 3 years to make sure your blood glucose levels are within the usual range.

If you had gestational diabetes, your baby is also at higher risk of having overweight or developing type 2 diabetes when they’re older. You can decrease this risk by: