Understanding the Risks Associated with Gestational Diabetes

Pregnant Mother Belly

If you are nearing the second half of your pregnancy, you may have heard your OB or midwife mention the infamous glucose test. You’ve probably heard tales of the syrupy orange drink that you have to consume before your blood is drawn and even more intimidating, the dreaded ‘three hour test’ required if you don’t pass the initial screening. But what is gestational diabetes exactly? And how does it affect your baby? Is there any way to prevent gestational diabetes? These are all questions that you may be wondering with your Glucose Challenge Screening approaching. Here are the answers to some of your questions! 

What is Gestational Diabetes?

To best understand gestational diabetes, it is helpful to understand how pregnancy impacts the body’s ability to process glucose (or sugar). In a healthy human body, the pancreas produces the hormone insulin which aids in moving glucose from your blood to the body’s cells where it is then used as energy. 

During pregnancy however, the placenta actually produces high levels of hormones that interfere with the process of insulin turning the glucose to energy, creating higher than normal blood sugar levels. As you progress in your pregnancy and your baby grows, your body produces more and more of these insulin blocking hormones. When your blood sugar rises to a level that is dangerous to mom and baby, this is considered gestational diabetes. 

What Are the Risks Associated with Gestational Diabetes?

If left untreated, gestational diabetes poses serious risks for both mom and baby. Health risks for your baby include:

  • Preterm labor or birth and respiratory distress syndrome
  • Macrosomia: This is when your baby is born too large (over 9 pounds) and is more likely to experience complications or injuries in the birth canal. This often results in the necessity of a C-section.
  • Hypoglycemia: Your baby may be born with low blood sugar due to the overproduction of insulin which can result in seizures.
  • Increased risk for obesity and Type 2 Diabetes later in life

Health risks for mom include:

  • High blood pressure or preeclampsia
  • Future diabetes  

Treatment for Gestational Diabetes

The good news is that gestational diabetes is a highly manageable condition that can be treated with a few lifestyle changes and some extra attention from your doctor. You can expect the following steps to be a part of your treatment plan if you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes: 

  • A healthy diet: Although you should always strive to eat a balanced diet while pregnant, it is extremely important to your health and the health of your baby if you have gestational diabetes. A diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fiber and low in fat and calories will help you keep your blood sugar levels down.
  • Exercise: It is recommended that pregnant women get 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day, most days per week. If you aren’t able to do thirty minutes, try breaking it up into smaller increments throughout your day. 
  • Medication: Fortunately, only 10-20 percent of women who are diagnosed with gestational diabetes require insulin medication.
  • Daily blood sugar monitoring through at-home testing
  • Close monitoring of your baby’s growth and development. GD may necessitate more frequent visits to your care provider during the last three months of your pregnancy.
  • You may be referred to an endocrinologist or dietitian.
  • Your blood will be checked immediately following delivery and then again at six weeks postpartum. Fortunately, in most cases your blood sugar levels will return to normal following the birth of your baby. 

What are the Risk Factors for Gestational Diabetes?

There are some preexisting factors that may make you a more likely candidate for gestational diabetes. These factors include:

  • Personal or family history with high blood sugar or Type 2 Diabetes
  • Previous pregnancy with gestational diabetes
  • Previous baby born over 9 pounds
  • Previous unexplained stillbirth
  • Pregnancy over the age of 25
  • Having a BMI of 30 or higher at the start of your pregnancy
  • Non-Caucasian race: It is not fully understood why, but women who are black, Hispanic, American Indian and Asian have a higher incidence of gestational diabetes than women who are white.  

Prevention

Although the cause of gestational diabetes is not always known, there are some things you can do to lessen the likelihood of its onset. These include:

  • Seeking healthcare prior to trying to get pregnant to assess for risk level and to discuss your plans for a healthy conception and pregnancy
  • Eating a well-balanced, healthy diet
  • Engaging in regular, moderate exercise during pregnancy
  • Losing excess weight prior to becoming pregnant 
  • Staying current on routine recommended screenings throughout pregnancy. Typically, your care provider will recommend you take your Glucose Challenge Screening between weeks 24-28 of pregnancy.

Gestational diabetes is a serious condition during pregnancy that requires medical attention and healthy lifestyle changes to protect the health of you and your baby. Fortunately, however, by following the guidance of your doctor or midwife and taking the extra precautions to keep your blood sugar levels low, your chances of experiencing any complications can be greatly reduced. Because there are typically no symptoms of gestational diabetes, consistent prenatal care is necessary for its detection. If you are concerned about gestational diabetes or have questions about how to have a healthy pregnancy, contact Health Foundations for a free consultation with a midwife. Your health and the health of your baby are our top priority.