Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that can happen while you’re pregnant, and goes away when your pregnancy is over. The cause of gestational diabetes — also known as “pregnancy diabetes” — is natural hormonal changes during pregnancy that make your body resistant to insulin (the hormone that turns sugar into energy). People with gestational diabetes don't make enough extra insulin to overcome this insulin resistance. When your body doesn’t make enough insulin, sugar stays in your blood, and your blood sugar can get too high. This is what diabetes is.
What are gestational diabetes symptoms and risks?
Gestational diabetes usually doesn’t show any symptoms during your pregnancy. The only way to know if you have gestational diabetes is to get tested for it at a prenatal care appointment. It’s generally something pregnant people are tested for in routine prenatal care.
You can have a healthy pregnancy, birth, and baby with gestational diabetes if it’s diagnosed and treated. If not, it can lead to some pregnancy complications — like early birth, or a larger fetus which can make vaginal birth more difficult or require a C-section. High blood pressure during pregnancy is also more common in people with gestational diabetes, as is developing type 2 diabetes at some point after pregnancy.
Taking care of your gestational diabetes is important for your baby, too. Babies born after a pregnancy where gestational diabetes isn’t treated are more likely to be born with hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), and have type 2 diabetes later in life.
How do I get tested for gestational diabetes?
You’ll probably be tested at a prenatal screening some time between your 24th and 28th week of pregnancy, when gestational diabetes typically develops. But your doctor or nurse may test you sooner than that if you’re at higher risk because of your health history.
The testing usually starts with a blood glucose screening. You’ll drink something with sugar in it, and then an hour or so later, you’ll have a blood test. If your blood sugar reading is higher than normal, that’s a sign you may have gestational diabetes, and you’ll have to have another test called a glucose tolerance test. In a glucose tolerance test, you’ll have your blood sugar tested before you’ve eaten, and then you’ll drink a special sugary syrup, and have your blood tested again. The results of that test, your blood sugar levels, will show whether you have gestational diabetes.
If you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes, your nurse or doctor may recommend tests looking at the fetus’s movement and heart rate, to make sure the fetus is healthy.
What is the treatment for gestational diabetes?
If you have gestational diabetes, your doctor or nurse will talk with you about a treatment plan for managing your diabetes for the rest of your pregnancy to keep you and the fetus healthy.
Gestational diabetes treatment includes things like:
Checking your blood sugar levels regularly. You may need to get your blood sugar tested more regularly at your doctor’s office, or use a blood glucose meter of your own.
Making changes to your diet. The main treatment for gestational diabetes is through nutrition. A doctor, nurse, or nutritionist will work with you to create a gestational diabetes meal plan that will help you control your blood sugar. They’ll help you learn about the types of food to eat and how often to eat to control your blood sugar.
Getting regular exercise. Exercise can make you less insulin resistant and can help keep your blood sugar levels down. It’s recommended to do aerobic exercise (like walking or running - anything that gets your heart rate up and breathing heavier) 2.5 hours per week. It can also help to walk for 10-15 minutes after eating a meal.
In some cases you may need to take medicine, like metformin or insulin, to manage your gestational diabetes.
Around half of all people who get gestational diabetes end up with type 2 diabetes at some point in their lives. So it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor or nurse while you’re still pregnant about what you can do after your pregnancy is over to prevent type 2 diabetes, and how often you should get tested for it.