Understanding gestational diabetes

Between 10 and 20% of pregnant women in Australia are affected by gestational diabetes. We look at what you can do to help prevent it and how you can manage it if it develops during your pregnancy.

What is Gestational Diabetes? 

Gestational diabetes is a form of diabetes where blood glucose levels become high during pregnancy. During pregnancy, the placenta produces hormones that help your baby grow, but some of these hormones can prevent your body’s insulin from working properly or maybe you already have pre-existing but undiagnosed high blood glucose levels.   Either way, your body cannot produce the extra insulin it needs to keep your blood glucose levels in the target range, your blood glucose levels rise, and you can develop gestational diabetes.

Gestational diabetes is commonly diagnosed in the second or third trimester and usually resolves after the birth  of your baby.  

How can you know if you have gestational diabetes? 

All pregnant women in Australia are screened for diabetes at 24-28 weeks’ gestation. If you have risk factors for gestational diabetes you will be tested when your pregnancy is initially confirmed, and again at 24-28 weeks if yourfirst test was negative.  

It is important that you are tested for gestational diabetes as it may harm you and your unborn baby if the condition is not properly managed. 

Risk factors for gestational diabetes

Although any pregnant woman can develop gestational diabetes, your risk is higher if you:
  • Have had gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy.
  • Are 25–30 years of age or older.
  • Are overweight or obese
  • Have a family history of type 2 diabetes .
  • Are from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, Melanesian, Polynesian, Chinese, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern or Indian background. 
  • Previously had a large baby (weighing more than 4.5 kg).
  • Have had elevated blood glucose levels in the past. 
  • Have had polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
pregnant woman cooking

Reducing your risk of developing gestational diabetes

While you can’t change some risk factors such as family history and ethnic background, the good news is that you can make lifestyle changes which may help reduce your risk of developing diabetes during pregnancy. 

Melinda Morrison, PhD National Program Leader, Diabetes in Pregnancy Program from Diabetes NSW says making lifestyle changes before you fall pregnant  can be a positive step. “Being a healthy weight before pregnancy can reduce the risk of [gestational diabtes] and it’s important that women embrace a healthy eating plan and participate in regular physical activity,” she says. 

According to Dr Morrison, the amount of weight gained during pregnancy is also important. She recommends that you discuss your individual weight-gain targets for pregnancy with your health professionals.

What to expect if you develop gestational diabetes

Don’t be alarmed if you develop gestational diabetes – most women diagnosed with the condition have a healthy pregnancy and go on to have a normal delivery of a healthy baby. 

It may be possible to manage your diabetes by doing no more than eating healthily and doing regular physical activity.

You will be managed by a team of diabetes health professionals including an endocrinologist, diabetes educator and dietitian. They can also give you tips on eating healthily to meet your nutritional needs for pregnancy, as well as tips on how you can stay physically active.

You will also need to regularly monitor your blood sugar levels during your pregnancy to be effective in managing your blood glucose levels and keeping them in a healthy range.

If your blood glucose levels can’t be managed with diet and regular physical activity alone, you may be prescribed insulin – but only for the duration of your pregnancy .

When you are near your due date

You will be closely monitored during your pregnancy, particularly towards the due date. You may be advised to have an earlier delivery or Caesarean birth if your baby grows too large, or there are other concerns about your pregnancy. 

Why not keep up the healthy habits you’ve developed post-pregnancy?

Having had gestational diabetes, you are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes down the track . Use your diagnosis as an early warning signal for diabetes and maintain the healthy lifestyle you developed during your pregnancy to help keep it at bay. You should also get your blood glucose levels checked at least once every 1–2 years as a precaution.

Gestational diabetes need not by a problem for you or your baby if it is properly managed. For more information contact your state or territory diabetes organisation on 1300 136 588. 
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