If you have noticed that your mom is having to test her blood sugars on a little machine in the morning or that she is taking injections of insulin when she hasn’t had to do this before, that probably means that she has a condition which many pregnant women get called gestational diabetes. The good news about this condition is that it usually goes away after the birth of the baby, but it can mean extra doctor visits, a specialized diet, and other considerations.
Read on to find out more about this condition.
What is Gestational Diabetes?
Gestational diabetes is a condition where a pregnant woman has difficulty in controlling her blood sugar levels.
Before we go on, let’s step back for a moment and talk about blood sugars and what they are. When someone eats a meal with, for example, bread or pasta or rice, the body takes the carbohydrates in those foods and breaks it down into a kind of sugar called glucose. Insulin from the pancreas then comes and transports that glucose into all the cells of the body, where it is used as a source of energy.
In gestational diabetes, however, this system breaks down and the mother’s blood sugars are too high. This can cause health problems for mom and baby both.
What Causes Gestational Diabetes?
When a woman is pregnant, the placenta (which is the fluid-filled sac that the baby is living in before it is born) starts to make hormones of its own. Some of these hormones make it more difficult for insulin to do its job and get glucose into the cells. And as the baby grows, the amount of hormones the placenta makes grows, too, so the problem can just get worse as the pregnancy advances. Usually, this does not become an issue until the last 20 weeks of the pregnancy.
Who is at Risk for Gestational Diabetes?
While any pregnant woman runs some risk of developing gestational diabetes, some women are more likely to get it than others. This includes women who:
- Are over the age of 25
- Are overweight or obese
- Have a family history of gestational diabetes
- Are of African, Asian, Hispanic or Native American heritage
How Do You Know if a Woman has Gestational Diabetes?
The scary thing about gestational diabetes is that it doesn’t have obvious symptoms — so a woman could have the problem and not know anything was wrong! That is why doctors screen pregnant women for this condition. Screening means they will run tests on women at different points in their pregnancy to see if the gestational diabetes is going to be a problem. There are two main tests that they use for this:
- Initial glucose challenge test. In this test, a woman will drink a solution with a sweet syrup in it and her blood sugar will be taken an hour later. If her blood sugars are higher than the doctor thinks they should be, she will go on to the next test.
- Follow-up glucose tolerance test. This is the second stage of the testing and is somewhat similar to the first. A woman taking this test with go without eating the night before, then come into the clinic and drinking another syrupy solution. Her blood sugar will be taken every hour after that for three hours. If two of those three blood sugar readings are higher than normal, a diagnosis of gestational diabetes is made.
How is Gestational Diabetes Treated?
Once a woman is diagnosed with gestational diabetes, treatment can begin. This usually includes any or all of the following:
- More frequent prenatal visits to the clinic so the doctor can monitor how mom and baby are doing
- Blood sugar tests either at the clinic or at home (or both) to make sure that the levels are safe and healthy
- Extra ultrasounds and other tests to make sure the baby is okay
- A healthy diet and regular exercise to help control blood sugars naturally
- Use of insulin injections if blood sugars remain high even with good eating and regular activity
After the birth of the baby, a woman’s blood sugar will be tested again and then once more time 6-12 weeks after birth to make sure the problems has resolved.
Why is it Important to Treat Gestational Diabetes?
Treatment of this condition is very important for a number of reasons. It can put women at greater risk for high blood pressure and for diabetes later on but it can also cause problems for the baby, including:
- Large birth size. Babies whose moms have uncontrolled blood sugars can be born unusually large (over 9 pounds) and this large size puts them at greater risk for getting hurt during labor.
- Low blood sugar. Babies can suffer from low blood sugar at birth due to the fact that they have too much insulin in their systems to begin with.
- Preterm birth. Uncontrolled gestational diabetes makes it more likely that babies will be born earlier than they should be; these babies are at a greater risk for respiratory problems because their lungs have not had time to develop fully.
- Diabetes. Infants born to moms with gestational diabetes have a greater risk of developing diabetes themselves later on in life.
All of this might sound a bit scary, but the fact is that this condition — especially if it is caught early — can be controlled with diet, exercise and even the use of insulin. All of these things can greatly lower risks to both mom and baby and allow for a safe and healthy pregnancy.