What is gestational diabetes?
Gestational diabetes is a temporary form of diabetes that can happen during pregnancy. It affects between 3% and 20% of pregnant women. In most cases, gestational diabetes ends when the baby is born. Most women in Canada are screened for gestational diabetes within the first 28 weeks of pregnancy.
What causes gestational diabetes?
Any woman can develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy, however, there are some well-known risk factors that make some women more likely to develop the condition. The risk factors for gestational diabetes include:
- Being 35 years of age or older
- A parent or sibling with type 2 diabetes
- Gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy
- Previous delivery of a baby that weighed more than 4 kilograms (9 pounds)
- Coming from a high-risk diabetes population (South Asian, Hispanic, Aboriginal, Asian or African)
- Using corticosteroid medication
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Acanthosis nigricans (dark patches of skin on the neck, armpits, groin, navel or forehead)
What are the risks of gestational diabetes for the mother and her baby?
Women who have had gestational diabetes are at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the future. Up to 30% will develop the disease within 15 years, and others will be diagnosed with prediabetes.
Careful management can keep gestational diabetes under control and lead to the birth of a healthy baby. If it is not carefully managed, the baby can grow very large, making delivery more complicated. It can also result in early labour, and cause the baby to have breathing problems or low blood sugar.
What are the symptoms of gestational diabetes?
The symptoms of gestational diabetes are very similar to those of type 2 diabetes, and include:
- Unusual thirst
- Frequent urination
- Frequent vaginal, bladder, and skin infections
- Blurred vision
How is gestational diabetes diagnosed?
Gestational diabetes is diagnosed with an oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT). Women who are being tested for gestational diabetes have a 50-gram OGTT, and their blood glucose is measured one hour later. If the woman has a blood glucose level of 11.1 mmol/L or higher at that time, it means she has gestational diabetes.
How is gestational diabetes managed?
Insulin may be needed
Usually, insulin is prescribed for women who have gestational diabetes since it helps to control the glucose levels in the blood. It is hard for your body to produce enough insulin on its own during pregnancy so insulin injections are usually required.
Checking blood glucose levels
It is important to know the levels of your blood glucose to make sure that they are at the target levels. Higher blood glucose levels can be harmful to the baby and to the pregnant mother. This is done by a finger prick blood sample using a blood glucose meter at home. Your healthcare team will also check your levels, so it is important to make sure you keep regular appointments.
The importance of healthy eating
Preparing and eating healthy meals is important in helping to control your blood glucose levels. A variety of healthy foods are needed for a balanced diet. This includes lots of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats, and a moderate amount of whole grains such as bread, rice, pasta and cereal. It is a good idea to meet with a registered dietitian who can help you with a meal plan. Learn more about healthy eating here.
Don’t stop exercising
Getting regular exercise not only helps with weight control, it also helps regulate insulin levels. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. If you haven’t exercised at all or on a regular basis, check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program.
Is there any way to reduce your risk of gestational diabetes?
Similar to type 2 diabetes, there are three main things you can do to reduce your risk of gestational diabetes:
- Eat healthy foods.
- Keep active. Exercising before and during pregnancy can help protect you from developing gestational diabetes.
- If you are overweight, lose weight before you become pregnant. (Weight loss is not recommended during pregnancy.)