According to the Centers for Disease Control, diabetes is a condition in which the body cannot use the sugars and starches (carbohydrates) it takes in as food to make energy. The body either makes no insulin or too little insulin, or cannot use the insulin it makes to change those sugars and starches into energy. As a result, extra sugar builds up in the blood, which can lead to a host of potentially serious complications.

What Is Gestational Diabetes?

Gestational diabetes (GD) is high blood sugar that starts or is first diagnosed during pregnancy. It's reported to affect approximately 18 percent of pregnancies. The condition is usually diagnosed after the 24th week of pregnancy, but that does not mean the woman had diabetes before she was pregnant or that she'll continue to have it after she delivers. In fact, for most women, gestational diabetes goes away soon after delivery. If it doesn't, she has what's called type 2 diabetes (AKA adult onset diabetes). Unfortunately, half of all women with gestational diabetes go on to develop type 2 diabetes later in life.

Every pregnant woman's blood sugar becomes slightly elevated, but most don't develop diabetes. During pregnancy, hormonal changes shift nutrients from the mother to the developing fetus. Other hormones produced by the placenta help prevent the mother from developing low blood sugar by resisting the actions of insulin. Insulin helps cells use glucose (blood sugar) for energy. Usually the pancreas produces enough extra insulin to balance out elevated blood sugar. If it can't produce enough though, blood sugar levels rise and cause gestational diabetes.

Risk Factors for Gestational Diabetes

There are many risk factors for developing GD, including:

  • Being African American or Hispanic
  • Having a family member with diabetes
  • Being overweight or obese, which may be the reason for the rise in cases of GD than in previous generations. (More women are starting their pregnancies overweight or obese and more are gaining large amounts of weight during pregnancy.)

The Complications of Gestational Diabetes

Women with GD are at increased risk for having a larger-than-normal baby, which increases their risk for needing a cesarean section. In addition, it can increase risks for miscarriage and stillbirth, preeclampsia and high blood pressure. 

Babies whose mothers have GD may gain too much weight during gestation, which can increase birth injuries and cause blood sugar instability, respiratory problems and difficulty maintaining body temperature. These babies often have to spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit. They also have higher rates of diabetes and hypertension as adults.   

Treatment for Gestational Diabetes

For many women, blood sugar can be stabilized by eating a healthy diet with limited or no processed sugars and by exercising regularly. They may have to test their own blood sugar frequently and if diet and exercise aren't enough to bring blood sugar into a normal range, they may need to take extra insulin or medications the increase their body's sensitivity to insulin. 

The best way to avoid developing GD is to monitor your weight, eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and attend all your prenatal checkups. If you're unsure what foods you should eat and avoid, talk to your doctor or midwife and ask for a nutrition consult. 

Heather Weldon, MD, OB-GYN, reviewed this article.




American Diabetes Association
What is Gestational Diabetes

Centers for Disease Control
Gestational Diabetes and Pregnancy