What is Gestational Diabetes? How Does It Affect My Baby?

Depressed woman in bed watching tv on smartphone

Many women worry about complications during pregnancy that can have a lasting effect on their babies or their own bodies. For about 18 percent of women, one complication is the development of gestational diabetes, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Most people know what diabetes is: the body’s inability to either produce enough insulin to process blood sugar or it’s a resistance to insulin, leading to unhealthy levels of sugar in the blood. Gestational diabetes regards the same issue, but refers specifically to this problem showing up in pregnant women.

Who can get gestational diabetes?

Any woman can get gestational diabetes, and many times, its symptoms are unrecognizable or nonexistent. However, women are more at risk for developing gestational diabetes if they:

  • Are older than 25.
  • Have a family history of Type 2 diabetes.
  • Had gestational diabetes with a previous pregnancy, or gave birth to a baby 9 pounds or larger.
  • Are obese.
  • Have prediabetes.
  • Have a history of polycystic ovary syndrome.
  • Previously had a stillborn baby.
  • Are African American, Hispanic, Latina, Asian, Native American or Pacific Islander.

Gestational diabetes generally develops or begins to show signs around 24 weeks of pregnancy, according to the American Diabetes Association. Doctors typically begin testing for it between 24 and 28 weeks because it’s at this stage in pregnancy that the placenta begins producing large quantities of hormones, some of which may lower women’s tolerances of insulin or blood sugar, according to the American Pregnancy Association.

How does gestational diabetes affect the baby?

Many women with gestational diabetes give birth to happy, healthy babies. However, having this condition does pose some risks to the baby. The most serious risk is the baby being stillborn or dying shortly after birth, according to MedicineNet.

Close up of male doctor holding document while sitting with pregnant woman in clinic
Gestational diabetes may cause complications with delivery.

The baby is also at higher risk of:

  • Jaundice.
  • Respiratory distress syndrome.
  • Shoulder dystocia (when the baby’s shoulder gets stuck in the birth canal).
  • Spinal development abnormalities or other congenital malformations.
  • Heart disease.
  • Neural tube defects.
  • Having low blood sugar immediately after birth.

The baby is also more prone to having a higher birth weight – as much as 9 pounds or larger – which can complicate delivery even more. Such complications may include needing a Cesarean section, early labor and preeclampsia.

Finally, a baby born to a mother with gestational diabetes is also at a higher risk of becoming overweight or developing Type 2 diabetes later in life.

Are there gestational diabetes symptoms?

Not always. Additionally, some symptoms of gestational diabetes may be brushed aside because they are incredibly similar to symptoms of general pregnancy – like feeling fatigued or a frequent need to pee. However, if these symptoms seem excessive, it may be worth bringing up with your doctor. Additionally, if you experience any of the following, consult your doctor:

  • Blurred vision.
  • Sores that heal slowly.
  • Excessive thirst.
  • Tingling or numbness in your hands and feet.

Many women who develop gestational diabetes will return to a normal ability to process glucose after giving birth, but they are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes in the decade after having their baby.

Is there a gestational diabetes test?

There are two types of gestational diabetes tests doctors can administer. For both, you’ll drink a sweet liquid that may make you nauseated. About an hour later, you’ll have your blood drawn and tested.

The first type of test conducted is a glucose challenge screening test. The lab technician will track your blood sugar levels to determine whether your body is processing the sugary drink normally. If you are, you probably don’t have gestational diabetes.

If your tests show abnormal results, your doctor will likely administer a second test for confirmation: The glucose tolerance test. The process is a bit more involved and will give a more accurate reading.

What is a healthy gestational diabetes diet?

Nutrition and exercise is the best way to prevent and manage gestational diabetes. Mediterranean-inspired diets are often used for preventing gestational diabetes, which include lots of:

  • Lean meats.
  • Whole grains.
  • Plant-based foods.
  • Fresh fruit.
  • Healthy fats, like extra virgin olive oil.
  • Unprocessed foods.

Starting early is best – women who aren’t yet pregnant but are trying to have a baby may want to start making healthy changes in their lifestyles even before they conceive. This will make for both a healthier pregnancy and a less difficult diet change after pregnancy.