Most pregnant women get a test for gestational diabetes at 24 to 28 weeks of pregnancy.
If untreated, gestational diabetes can cause problems for your baby, like premature birth and stillbirth.
Gestational diabetes usually goes away after you have your baby; but if you have it, you’re more likely to develop diabetes later in life.
Talk to your health care provider about what you can do to reduce your risk for gestational diabetes and help prevent diabetes in the future.
What is gestational diabetes?
Gestational diabetes (also called gestational diabetes mellitus or GDM) is a kind of diabetes that can happen during pregnancy. Seven out of every 100 pregnant women (7 percent) develop gestational diabetes. It’s a condition in which your body has too much sugar (called glucose) in the blood.
When you eat, your body breaks down sugar and starches from food into glucose to use for energy. Your pancreas (an organ behind your stomach) makes a hormone called insulin that helps your body keep the right amount of glucose in your blood. When you have diabetes, your body doesn’t make enough insulin or can’t use insulin well, so you end up with too much sugar in your blood. This can cause serious health problems, like heart disease, kidney failure and blindness. It’s really important to get treatment for diabetes to help prevent problems like these.
Can gestational diabetes cause problems during pregnancy?
Most of the time gestational diabetes can be controlled and treated during pregnancy to protect both you and your baby. But if not treated, it can cause problems during pregnancy, including:
- Preeclampsia. This is when a pregnant woman has high blood pressure and signs that some of her organs, like her kidneys and liver, may not be working properly. Signs of preeclampsia include having protein in the urine, changes in vision and severe headaches.
- Premature birth. This is birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Premature babies are more likely than full-term babies to have health problems at birth and later in life.
- Having a very large baby, weighing more than 9 pounds. Weighing this much makes your baby more likely to get hurt during labor and birth. You may need to have a cesarean birth (also called c-section) to keep your baby safe. A c-section is surgery in which your baby is born through a cut that your doctor makes in your belly and uterus (womb). Large babies are more likely to be obese or have diabetes later in life.
- Stillbirth. This is when a baby dies in the womb after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Gestational diabetes also can cause health complications for your baby after birth, including breathing problems, low blood sugar and jaundice. Jaundice is a medical condition in which a baby’s eyes and skin look yellow. A baby has jaundice when his liver isn't fully developed or isn’t working well.
Are you at risk for gestational diabetes?
You may be more likely than other women to develop gestational diabetes if:
- You’re older than 25.
- You’re overweight or you gained a lot of weight during pregnancy.
- You have a family history of diabetes. This means that one or more of your family members has diabetes.
- You’re African-American, Native American, Asian, Hispanic or Pacific Islander. These women are more likely to have gestational diabetes than others.
- You had gestational diabetes in a past pregnancy.
- You had a baby in a past pregnancy who weighed more than 9 pounds or was stillborn.
Even women without any of these risk factors can develop gestational diabetes. This is why your health care provider tests you for gestational diabetes during pregnancy.
How do you know if you have gestational diabetes?
Your health care provider tests you for gestational diabetes with a prenatal test called a glucose tolerance test. You get the test at 24 to 28 weeks of pregnancy. Your provider may give you the test earlier if he thinks you’re likely to develop gestational diabetes.
If your glucose screening test comes back positive, you get another test called a glucose tolerance test to see for sure if you have gestational diabetes. If this test is positive, your treatment may include:
- Going more often for prenatal care checkups through the rest of your pregnancy to make sure you and your baby are healthy.
- Checking your blood sugar on your own. Your provider shows you how to do this and tells you how often to check it.
- Eating healthy foods and being active every day.
- Taking insulin. It comes in shots that your provider shows you how to give yourself.
If you have gestational diabetes, how can you help prevent getting diabetes later in life?
For most women, gestational diabetes goes away after giving birth. But having it makes you more likely to develop type 2 diabetes later in life. Type 2 diabetes is the most common kind of diabetes. If you have type 2 diabetes, your pancreas makes too little insulin or your body becomes resistant to it (can’t use it normally).
Here’s what you can do to help reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes after pregnancy:
- Breastfeed. Breastfeeding can help you lose weight after pregnancy. Being overweight makes you more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
- Get tested for diabetes 6 to 12 weeks after your baby is born. If the test is normal, get tested again every 3 years. If the test shows you have prediabetes, get tested once a year. Prediabetes means your blood sugar levels are slightly higher than they should be but not high enough to have diabetes.
- Get to and stay at a healthy weight.