What is gestational diabetes?

What is gestational diabetes, can it affect your unborn child, and how can you lower your risk of developing it?

Gestational diabetes is diabetes that comes on during pregnancy. Treating gestational diabetes helps reduce the risk of complications during pregnancy and the birth of your baby, and your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

What causes gestational diabetes?

Gestational diabetes is a condition affecting up to 10 per cent of pregnant women. The placenta produces hormones to help the unborn baby develop and grow that requires the body to make and release more insulin. When a woman’s body cannot cope with the extra demand for insulin production or becomes resistant to insulin, high blood glucose levels result.  

What are the risks of gestational diabetes?

Bupa Australia’s National Medical Director and GP Dr Tim Ross says there are several risks with gestational diabetes.

“The baby tends to be larger in size, which can make delivery difficult, and the mother is at higher risk of pre-eclampsia – a dangerous condition in pregnancy involving high blood pressure. There’s also an increased risk of premature labour.

“Risks for the baby include a higher risk of stillbirth, and higher risk of problems after delivery, like low blood glucose, jaundice and an increased chance of developing diabetes or being obese as they grow up.”
pregnant lady exercising

How can gestational diabetes be avoided?

The best way to reduce your risk of gestational diabetes is to be fit and healthy before becoming pregnant. Being overweight to start with will increase your risk, as does having your baby after 30. Gestational diabetes can  still occur in healthy, young people - risk factors you can’t change include family history of type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy, and being from certain ethnic backgrounds.

Symptoms and signs of gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes usually has no obvious symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they can include:
 
  • unusual thirst
  • excessive urination
  • unusual and extreme tiredness
  • frequent bouts of thrush (yeast infections).
 
However, these are often common symptoms of pregnancy, so generally gestational diabetes is picked up when you have a routine blood glucose check in your 24th to 28th week of pregnancy. 
 

Gestational diabetes diet and management

Gestational diabetes can often initially be managed with healthy eating and regular physical activity. 
These measures help to:
 
  • keep blood glucose levels within the target range advised by your doctor
  • provide adequate nutrition for you and your growing baby
  • achieve appropriate weight changes during your pregnancy
However, some women with gestational diabetes will require insulin injections for the rest of the pregnancy.
 
“Even if gestational diabetes can’t be avoided, monitoring blood glucose levels and keeping them stable during pregnancy, usually with the use of insulin, is the best way to avoid complications,” says Dr Ross.
 
About 10 to 20 per cent of women with gestational diabetes will require insulin during their pregnancy. Generally after the baby is born the condition usually goes away and insulin is no longer needed. A special blood glucose test (Oral Glucose Tolerance Test or OGTT) is performed six weeks after delivery to ensure that blood glucose levels have returned to an optimal range.
 
However, women who have had gestational diabetes have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life, and it’s recommended they have check-ups at least every two to three years to monitor their blood glucose levels and for signs of diabetes.
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