Gestational diabetes is a niche medical condition, so to speak. Some women are at risk via their current medical status and/or lifestyle choices. Other times, it is diagnosed in women who have never struggled with blood sugar issues in their life. In either scenario, gestational diabetes poses a health risk to both mother and baby, which is why healthcare providers work so carefully to avoid it, and treat it immediately once it is diagnosed.
What is Gestational Diabetes?
Gestational diabetes is typically diagnosed around Week 24 of a pregnancy, via a glucose screening test, when a mother’s blood sugar levels are consistently higher than they should be. In most cases, women diagnosed with gestational diabetes have never had diabetes before and will not have it again. While its causes are not completely understood, it is thought the hormones produced in the placenta block the mother’s natural insulin processes, causing insulin resistance, which makes it harder for her body to regular blood sugar levels.
Once your body is no longer able to make and use the correct amount of insulin to convert glucose (sugar) into energy, glucose levels begin to rise. This condition is called hyperglycemia. All that extra glucose passes through the blood stream, into the placenta, through the umbilical cord and directly into your baby. This is where things can become unhealthy for both you and baby.
Now, your baby’s body is working overtime, trying to produce enough insulin via his or her own pancreas to handle all that extra sugar. In the meantime, all that extra sugar (energy) isn’t being used so it starts packing on as extra fat pounds. This leads to a condition called macrosomia, or a “fat” baby.
Risks for developing gestational diabetes include:
- Being 25 years or older when you get pregnant. Gestational diabetes risk increases after age 25 and with each passing year.
- Family medical history. If your mother, grandmothers and/or sisters had gestational diabetes, you’re more likely to have it as well.
- Personal medical history. If you are pre-diabetic or have higher-than-normal blood sugar levels before pregnancy, you’re more likely to develop gestational diabetes.
- Excess weight. Try to keep your body mass index (BMI) below 30 to minimize risk.
- Non-white ethnicity. Women who are of Latin, Asian and African decent are at higher risk for gestational diabetes.
- Being pregnant with a son. Recent research shows that women pregnant with male babies are more likely to develop gestational diabetes. On the flip side, women who develop gestational diabetes while pregnant with a daughter are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes later on.
Gestational Diabetes Leads to Several Health Risks for Mother & Baby
Fat babies are cute, but babies with macrosomia are heavier than nature intended. Plus, as you can imagine, all that extra weight is bad for mama and baby when it comes time for labor and delivery. Some of the health risks caused by gestational diabetes include:
Extra-large babies. Now, the reality is that your body was designed to birth a baby naturally – and healthy babies can range from six to ten pounds on average. However, “naturally” is the key word. Gestational diabetes leads to UN-natural weight gain, and this can cause baby to struggle when it’s time to get through the birth canal, putting you at risk for a C-Section.
Pre-term birth leading to respiratory distress. If you have gestational diabetes, your doctor or Mother Nature may decide your baby needs to be born earlier, rather than full-term, because he’s getting too big. Babies born pre-term can lack fully developed lungs, which leads to respiratory distress syndrome and a risk of further complications.
Low blood sugar after birth. For every action, there is an equal and opposite re-action, right? Thus, many babies who have all that extra glucose in their system (via the mother) have amped up insulin production. Once out of the womb, this can cause severely low blood sugar levels (called hypoglycemia). In infants, severe hypoglycemia can cause seizures.
Higher risk of Type 2 diabetes. Babies born of mothers with gestational diabetes have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. If you have gestational diabetes, you are also more likely to develop type 2 diabetes when you get older.
Infant mortality. In cases where gestational diabetes goes untreated, it can lead to infant death.
Risk of high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia. Women with gestational diabetes have higher rates of high blood pressure and are at higher risk for developing a very dangerous condition called pre-eclampsia.
All of the above are examples of why prenatal care is so important. Catching gestational diabetes before it becomes a problem is integral to the health of you and your baby. Once diagnosed, your doctor will work closely with you on diet and lifestyle changes that can naturally reduce blood sugar levels. She will continue to monitor you and your baby carefully, ensuring you are both as healthy as possible. If necessary, medications may be prescribed to further keep blood sugar levels in check.