Family & Parenting

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Understanding gestational diabetes

Many people are familiar with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, both of which are characterized by high blood glucose levels that can lead to additional health problems. Insulin injections, dietary changes, exercise, and medication may be needed to correct the ratio of sugar to insulin in the body.

Another common form of diabetes  may not be as well-known as the others but can be a concern for expecting parents. Gestational diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association, refers to the appearance of high blood sugar levels during pregnancy. Women who have never before been diagnosed with diabetes can experience elevated sugar levels while carrying a child. A 2014 analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates the prevalence of gestational diabetes can be as high as 9 percent among pregnant women in the United States.

While doctors are not completely certain why gestational diabetes occurs, the National Institutes of Health notes that some doctors suspect pregnancy hormones produced in the placenta block naturally-occurring insulin from working effectively. When this occurs, glucose levels can spike. This problem is called insulin resistance, and women may need three times as much insulin at this time. Blood sugar usually returns to normal after delivery, but treatment may be necessary during pregnancy.

Certain women are at a higher risk of developing gestational diabetes than others. These include women older than 25 and those with a family history of diabetes. Excess weight or diabetes during a previous pregnancy also increases risk. Women who have delivered babies who weighed more than 9 pounds also have an elevated chance of gestational diabetes.

Although many women deliver healthy babies while dealing with gestational diabetes, poorly controlled gestational diabetes can hurt the unborn child. The ADA says extra blood glucose goes through the placenta, giving the baby high blood glucose levels and causing the baby's pancreas to make extra insulin to get rid of the blood glucose. Since the baby is getting more energy than it needs to grow and develop, the extra energy is stored as fat. An overweight baby may have difficulty exiting the birth canal, and a C-section may be necessary. Newborns with very low blood glucose levels at birth due to high insulin production are at a greater risk for breathing problems. Some babies born to mothers with gestational diabetes develop type 2 diabetes later in life.

Gestational diabetes also can affect the mother, who is at greater risk for high blood pressure and preeclampsia, a serious complication of pregnancy. Risk of diabetes in subsequent pregnancies or later in life also is greater among women who have had gestational diabetes.

Symptoms of gestational diabetes are not always noticeable. Because gestational diabetes can occur midway through a pregnancy, women are usually advised to take an oral glucose tolerance test between the 24th and 28th week of pregnancy to screen for diabetes. If diabetes is detected, a strict diet that's low in fat and sugar will be advised. Carbohydrates should be consumed through complex grains and vegetables. If dietary changes do not work, diabetes medication or insulin therapy may be prescribed.

Women concerned about gestational diabetes should speak with their obstetricians or midwives about their potential risk, as these medical professionals may be able to test earlier for gestational diabetes or begin on healthcare regimens to help prevent high blood sugar levels.