What Is Gestational Diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition in which there is a problem with the way your body makes or uses insulin. Insulin is the hormone that enables your body's cells to use glucose, or blood sugar, for energy. In gestational diabetes, the placenta that nourishes the baby produces hormones that can block the body's ability to use insulin, a condition called insulin resistance. To make up for this, the body needs to produce more insulin. Sometimes a woman's body just can't make enough. So, the glucose level in her blood stays high, and she develops gestational diabetes, the NICHD says.

Gestational diabetes usually develops later in pregnancy, when the baby's body weight is increasing and after the baby's organ systems have been formed. For most women, gestational diabetes goes away after the pregnancy ends, but the risk for developing it with future pregnancies is higher. Occasionally, a pregnancy will uncover pre-existing type 1 or type 2 diabetes, which will continue after the pregnancy.

Gestational diabetes does not cause birth defects. Most women with gestational diabetes have healthy, full-term babies. If gestational diabetes is not adequately treated, the extra blood glucose in the mother's blood crosses the placenta, raising the baby's blood sugar. The baby's body makes extra insulin to store the extra blood sugar as fat.

Understanding gestational diabetes

You're in your 24th to 28th week of pregnancy, and your doctor wants to test you for diabetes. If you feel fine, you may wonder why he or she ordered the test. About 5 percent of all pregnant women who did not have diabetes before becoming pregnant will develop persistent high blood sugar while they're expecting, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). This is known as gestational diabetes, and you can have it without having obvious symptoms.

Gestational diabetes can be controlled. But you need to take the disease seriously. Left untreated, gestational diabetes can harm your baby and lead to problems during childbirth.

Hormonal changes and weight gain are part of a normal pregnancy. For at least three out of every 100 pregnant women, these changes cause a rise in blood sugar, resulting in gestational diabetes.

In addition, the extra insulin in the baby's body can cause very low blood glucose levels at birth. These babies also have higher risk for breathing problems.

Keeping your weight gain at the level recommended by your health care provider and keeping your blood glucose under control during pregnancy will help you have a normal weight baby. Larger babies are more likely to be obese during childhood and develop type 2 diabetes later on, the NICHD says.

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