Understanding Gestational Diabetes

Reviewed by James Brann, MD
Like “regular” diabetes, gestational diabetes disrupts how your body uses sugar. Sugar is needed by your cells to work normally. A hormone called insulin helps sugar get into your cells. If you don’t have enough insulin, though, or if your body isn’t responding to insulin, sugar starts building up in your blood. This is what people with diabetes are dealing with.
As for gestational diabetes, it’s a type of diabetes that begins to affect certain women while they’re pregnant. It’s caused because during pregnancy, your body needs more insulin. Sometimes, though, your body isn’t able to make enough.

How will it affect my baby and me?

With gestational diabetes, your baby may get too large, meaning heavier than nine pounds. This becomes a problem because a large baby may be injured if it isn’t able to easily go through a woman’s vagina. A large baby could also hurt the mom during delivery. If the baby won’t fit, the mom may need surgery to get the baby out, called a C-section.

With gestational diabetes, you also run the risk of developing preeclampsia, a potentially life-threatening pregnancy problem. It leads to a number of things, including high blood pressure.

What are my chances of getting gestational diabetes?

It’s difficult to know which women will end up with gestational diabetes. Some women, however, are at a greater risk of developing it than others are. Your risk goes up if:
  • You are overweight
  • You are older than age 25
  • You have diabetes in your family
  • You have had it before

What about testing?

All pregnant women will be tested for gestational diabetes, no matter the risk factors. For most women, this comes at around month six or seven of pregnancy. That’s around weeks 24-28. Women who are at higher risk, though, may be tested even earlier.
There are different testing methods. The most common way is for you to drink a sweet, special drink. After at least an hour, you’ll have blood drawn. This allows your nurse or doctor to find out how high your blood sugar goes after eating sugar.

Treating gestational diabetes

In order to great gestational diabetes, you need to make sure you’re frequently checking your blood sugar. Your doctor can teach you how to do it yourself with a simple machine. For most women, blood sugar levels can be controlled by their diet. Other women, though, may need to take insulin shots or some other diabetes medicines.

Changing my diet

Lean on a registered dietitian for help in changing your diet. The answer is different for every woman, so a diet that works for one person may not work for everyone. Despite this, you do want to go for whole grains in your bread and rice, and stay away from fatty foods and sweets.

What about exercise?

Exercise isn’t needed for the treatment of gestational diabetes. However, if you’re active it will help you control your blood sugar. If you exercise already, keep it up. If you don’t exercise and want to start exercising, talk to your nurse or doctor about what’s safe.

Doctor visits

If you have gestational diabetes, you likely need to see your nurse or doctor more often than pregnant women who don’t have the disorder do. The frequency of visits depends on how your doctor thinks you’re doing when you visit, and whether you’re using insulin. Your doctor will:
  • Ask you about your diet
  • Check up on your baby
  • Adjust your insulin dosage (if applicable)
  • Check your blood sugar levels

If your blood sugar levels are staying close to the normal range, there’s a good chance you’ll have a normal delivery. During delivery, though, your nurse or doctor will keep tabs on your blood sugar level to make sure it’s staying down.

After delivery

Once you’ve delivered your child, you’ll probably notice your diabetes has gone away and your blood sugar returned to normal. If you were previously on insulin, you likely won’t need it any longer. Despite this, though, your nurse or doctor will want to check your blood sugar to make sure the levels go down to normal and stay there. If you’ve had gestational diabetes, you’re at an increased risk of developing “regular” diabetes later on. You’ll want to continue to be checked for diabetes about every few years.

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