Diabetes and birth defects: Is there a connection?

March 10, 2020

Diabetes is a condition in which your body has too much sugar in the blood (called blood sugar or glucose). Preexisting diabetes (also called pregestational diabetes) means you have diabetes before you get pregnant. Women with preexisting diabetes can and do have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies. But untreated diabetes can cause complications for both moms and babies.

For example, diabetes that is not managed well can increase the risk for certain birth defects in your baby. Birth defects are structural changes present at birth that can affect almost any part of the body. They may affect how the body looks, works or both. Birth defects can cause problems in overall health, how the body develops or how the body works.

Your baby’s organs form during the first two months of pregnancy – often before you know you’re pregnant. Blood sugar that is not in control can affect the way your baby’s organs develop. This can lead to birth defects like:

  • Congenital heart defects (also called CHDs). These are heart conditions that a baby is born with. They are the most common type of birth defects.
  • Neural tube defects (also called NTDs). These are birth defects of the brain, spine and spinal cord.

Tips for a healthy pregnancy

If you have preexisting diabetes, here are some things you can do to control your blood sugar during pregnancy and decrease the risk for birth defects:

  • Plan ahead. Get a preconception checkup to make sure your body’s ready for pregnancy. Your health care provider can help you plan ahead for a healthy baby and get your blood sugar under control before you get pregnant. You may want to see an endocrinologist, who is a doctor with special training in diabetes care.
  • Talk to your provider about medicines you take. Your provider can make sure any medicines you take are safe for your baby. If not, your provider can change your medicines to safer ones. Many women with diabetes need to take insulin during pregnancy to help control their blood sugar. It’s important to take medicine and insulin exactly as your provider tells you.
  • Go to all your prenatal care checkups, even if you’re feeling fine. During pregnancy, you may need to see your provider more often than a pregnant woman without diabetes. These checkups can help your provider prevent problems or find them early, when they’re easier to treat.
  • Keep track of your blood sugar. During pregnancy, your body’s energy needs change and your blood sugar can change quickly. Women with diabetes are more likely to have hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, when they’re pregnant. Talk to your provider about how often you should check your blood sugar and what to do if it’s too low or too high.
  • Eat healthy foods. Eating healthy during pregnancy is especially important for women with diabetes. A registered dietitian (also called RD) can help you create a healthy meal plan to manage your blood sugar. A registered dietitian is a licensed health care professional to help people eat healthy foods to help them live a healthy life.
  • Get exercise. Exercise during pregnancy is safe and healthy for most women. Exercise can help you keep your blood sugar under control. It also has other benefits, like boosting your energy and keeping your heart healthy. Check with your provider about whether exercise is safe for you during pregnancy.

Learn more about diabetes and pregnancy.