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 normal during pregnancy. Approximately 9 percent of pregnant women experience gestational diabetes.

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

The causes of gestational diabetes are not fully understood and it 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.

What are the risk factors for gestational diabetes?

The causes of gestational diabetes aren’t known, but it is associated with a variety of risk factors. Those factors include:

  • being over age 25
  • being overweight
  • having a close relative with type 2 diabetes
  • having higher-than-normal blood glucose levels prior to pregnancy, or signs of insulin resistance, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome or acanthosis nigricans

Some ethnic groups are also at a higher risk for developing gestational diabetes, and include:

  • African-American
  • Asian-American
  • Hispanic
  • Native American
  • Pacific Islander

How can I lower my risk of gestational diabetes?

The best way to lower your risk for gestational diabetes is by being healthy before you get pregnant. If you’re overweight, work on improving your diet, eating healthy food, and exercising regularly. Talk with your doctor about the best way for you to lose weight, since even a few pounds can make a difference in your risk level for gestational diabetes.

If you’re inactive, start regular physical activity at least three times a week. After you’re pregnant, don’t try to lose weight, but do continue a healthy diet that focuses on vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Exercise moderately for at least 30 minutes a day, at least three days a week.

Gestational diabetes and insulin

All types of diabetes are related to insulin. Insulin is a hormone that regulates the amount of glucose in your blood by allowing the 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 helps sugar stay in your blood longer 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. So a certain level of insulin resistance is normal 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 high levels of pregnancy hormones

If your glucose levels become too high, you’ll be diagnosed with gestational diabetes.

What are the symptoms of gestational diabetes?

Generally, you won’t experience any noticeable symptoms of gestational diabetes. However, gestational diabetes can increase your risk of other conditions. One of the most serious is preeclampsia, which causes high blood pressure and can be fatal if not treated quickly.

Gestational diabetes is also associated with macrosomia, a condition in which your baby grows too big. Macrosomia is associated with a higher risk for a cesarean delivery. Gestational diabetes can also lead to your baby having low blood glucose at birth.

Since gestational diabetes doesn’t normally have any symptoms, it is diagnosed by a blood test. Your doctor will order a gestational diabetes screening test during your second trimester.

The standard test is a glucose challenge test that can be done in one of two ways. During the test, you’ll have your blood drawn while you’re fasting. Then you’ll drink a sugary solution and take another blood draw an hour or two later.

If you test in one hour and your blood sugar levels are back to normal, then you won’t need any more tests for gestational diabetes. If it is higher than the target, you will need to schedule another time to return to your doctor’s office and do a three-hour glucose test. If you test at two hours, that number will be used to diagnose gestational diabetes.

Read more: Gestational diabetes test: What to expect »

How is gestational diabetes treated?

Many women are able to manage gestational diabetes through diet and exercise, which can be very effective controlling blood sugar levels. Your doctor will recommend a meal plan and exercise schedule. You will 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, then you may need to take insulin as well.

Your doctor will test your blood sugar levels regularly for the rest of your pregnancy, and you will 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. Your doctor will tell you what number range to look for. If your glucose is too high, call your doctor right away.

In addition to testing at home, you’ll be visiting your doctor more frequently if you have gestational diabetes. Your doctor will probably want to test your glucose levels in the office once a month to confirm your home readings. You may also have more frequent ultrasounds to monitor your baby’s growth. Your doctor may do a nonstress test to make sure your baby’s heart rate increases when they are active.

Finally, your doctor may recommend induction if labor doesn’t start by your due date, since postdate delivery can increase your risks when you have gestational diabetes.

What is the outlook for gestational diabetes?

Gestational diabetes usually goes away on its own after you give birth. Your doctor will test your blood sugar levels 6 to 12 weeks after you give birth to make sure your levels are back to normal. If they aren’t, then you may have type 2 diabetes, not gestational diabetes.

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

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

  • breastfeeding
  • teaching your child healthy eating habits from a young age
  • encouraging your child to be physically active throughout their life


Will eating sugary foods during my pregnancy increase my risk for gestational diabetes?


Eating sugary foods will not increase your risk for gestational diabetes. If you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes it will be important to manage your carbohydrate intake to best manage your blood sugar levels. This would include managing your intake of sugary foods. Some of these foods, such as soda and juice, digest more quickly than other carbohydrate foods that have fiber, and may spike blood sugar levels, especially if taken alone. Meet with a registered dietitian if you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes so you can be sure that you are managing your diet appropriately.

Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDEAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.