Gestational diabetes is a temporary type of diabetes that develops during pregnancy, and it is becoming increasingly common. Instances of gestational diabetes climbed 30% between 2016 and 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

Each year, up to 10% of pregnancies are affected by gestational diabetes, and the condition may cause health complications for you and your baby. Because of this, you’ll receive a blood test to screen for gestational diabetes when you are between 24 and 28 weeks pregnant.

Knowing key factors about gestational diabetes – like what causes it and how it is tested – can help you understand your risk level and establish preventive, healthy lifestyle habits.

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What causes gestational diabetes?

When you eat and drink, the sugar from the food and drinks you consume is absorbed into your bloodstream. Sugar needs a hormone called insulin, produced by your pancreas, to be transferred into energy in your cells.

While your baby is developing, your body must make about three times its normal amount of insulin. During pregnancy, the placenta, which supplies the baby with nutrients, also creates hormones. Some of these hormones make it difficult for insulin to do its normal job of controlling your blood sugar levels. When you have gestational diabetes, the pancreas cannot keep up with your body’s heightened requirement for insulin. Without enough insulin, too much sugar, also known as blood glucose, remains in your bloodstream.

How do I test for gestational diabetes?

Screening for gestational diabetes is a two-step process called a glucose screening. For the first step, you drink a sweet liquid, called an oral glucose tolerance beverage, that’s specifically designed to measure how well your body uses sugar. For the second step, the clinic will take a blood sample from your arm one hour later, and a lab will measure your blood glucose level from your blood.

Your prenatal care clinic will help you prepare for your glucose screening by giving you specific instructions leading up to it. If you’re asked you to drink the beverage at home prior to your appointment, record the exact time you drink it because your blood must be drawn exactly one hour later.

What are the complications caused by gestational diabetes?

Gestational diabetes can cause complications for you and for your baby. Some women are at higher risk of developing gestational diabetes, including those who are over the age of 25, are overweight and/or those who have a family history of diabetes.

Gestational diabetes may cause:

  • Excessive birth weight, known as macrosomia, which may cause problems during delivery or require cesarean section.
  • Early birth caused by high blood sugar. Early birth may cause respiratory distress syndrome, a condition that makes breathing difficult for the baby.
  • Low blood sugar in your baby, which can lead to seizures.
  • Preeclampsia, a serious blood pressure condition.
  • Heightened risk of Type 2 diabetes development in both mother and baby. Up to 70% of mothers who are diagnosed with gestational diabetes will develop Type 2 diabetes within 20 years.

How can I reduce my risk of gestational diabetes?

While some risk factors, like your age, are outside of your control, the good news is that many risk factors for gestational diabetes are lifestyle-based. This means that you can reduce your risk of developing it by making healthy lifestyle changes. Those include:

  • Maintaining a healthy body weight. This number is different for everyone, so talk with your prenatal care clinician to determine what a healthy body weight is for you during your pregnancy.
  • Being physically active. Several studies have found that regular exercise helps reduce the risk of gestational diabetes.
  • Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, as well as fiber from whole grains.

What happens if I am diagnosed with gestational diabetes?

If your glucose screening results reveal that you have blood glucose levels above a normal range, you’ll get a diagnostic test for confirmation. That’s because some women who have heightened blood glucose results on an initial screening do not receive a diagnosis of gestational diabetes.

If you receive a diagnosis of gestational diabetes, your doctor will work with you to develop a personalized care plan that includes steps to monitor and control your blood sugar levels, or may provide you with a referral to a specialist.

Remember: experiencing a healthy pregnancy, labor and delivery are possible with gestational diabetes by working with your prenatal care team and making healthy lifestyle choices.