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Gestational diabetes: What it means for mother and baby

Gestational diabetes can lead to health complications for mother and baby. Here are the risk factors and how to help prevent developing the condition.

August 16, 2023

Gestational diabetes: What it means for mother and baby

Each year, between 2% and 10% of pregnancies across the nation are affected by gestational diabetes. This type of diabetes can develop during pregnancy in women who don’t already have diabetes.

About gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes is also known as gestational diabetes mellitus or GDM. It is a condition where a hormone made by the placenta prevents the body from using insulin effectively. Glucose builds up in the blood instead of being absorbed by the cells. High blood sugar levels can lead to complications for both mother and baby.

Health risks of gestational diabetes for mothers

This form of diabetes may affect the delivery of the baby and can also increase a woman’s risk of developing certain health conditions. Risks can include:

  • High blood pressure (preeclampsia) — Gestational diabetes heightens the risk of high blood pressure and preeclampsia. It is a serious pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and signs of damage to another organ system, most often the liver and kidneys. Preeclampsia usually starts after 20 weeks of pregnancy in women whose blood pressure had previously been normal. If left untreated, preeclampsia can lead to serious, even fatal, complications for mother and baby.
  • C-section (Cesarean section) — Women who have gestational diabetes are more likely to require a C-section to deliver; causing a longer recovery following childbirth.
  • Future diabetes — Women who have gestational diabetes are more likely to have the condition again during a future pregnancy. As they get older, women are also at higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Research shows that about 50% of women with gestational diabetes go on to develop type 2 diabetes.

How gestational diabetes can affect babies

If the mother has gestational diabetes during pregnancy, her baby can have an increased risk of developing health complications, including:

  • Macrosomia — Extra sugar in the mother’s blood passes to her child, which can lead to excessive growth and a larger-than-average baby. The term "fetal macrosomia" is used to describe a newborn who is much larger than average — or more than 8 pounds, 13 ounces, regardless of gestational age. These babies are more likely to become wedged in the birth canal, suffer birth injuries or need a C-section birth.
  • Premature birth — High blood sugar may increase the risk of early labor and delivery before the due date. Early delivery may be recommended also because the baby is large.
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) — Babies of mothers with gestational diabetes can have low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) shortly after birth. Severe episodes of hypoglycemia may cause seizures in the baby. Timely feedings and sometimes an intravenous glucose solution can return the baby's blood sugar level to normal.
  • Trouble breathing (respiratory distress) — Too much insulin or glucose in a baby's system may prevent the lungs from growing fully. This can cause breathing problems in babies.
  • Obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life — Babies of mothers who have gestational diabetes have a higher risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life.
  • Stillbirth (fetal death) — Untreated gestational diabetes can result in a baby's death either before or shortly after birth.

What are the risk factors?

Any woman can develop gestational diabetes. However, certain risk factors are associated with the condition. These include:

  • Overweight or obesity
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Previous gestational diabetes family member
  • Diabetes in an immediate family member
  • Previously delivering a baby weighing more than 9 pounds
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome (also called polycystic ovary syndrome or PCOS)
  • Age (women who are older than 25 are at a greater risk for developing gestational diabetes than younger women)
  • Race (women who are Back, Hispanic, American Indian and Asian American have a higher risk of developing gestational diabetes)

Can gestational diabetes be prevented?

While it’s not always possible to prevent gestational diabetes, it’s important for women to maintain a healthy weight before and after conception, eat nutritiously and exercise regularly throughout pregnancy. Doing so may help to reduce her risk for the condition. Consider these prevention tips:

  • Lose weight if you're overweight — For women planning to get pregnant, losing extra weight beforehand may help with a healthier pregnancy. Being overweight doesn’t always mean a woman will develop gestational diabetes, but it does increase the risk.
  • Eat a healthy diet — Choosing foods that are high in fiber and low in fat and calories is essential. Women should eat a healthy diet that includes vegetables, fruits and whole grains. They should also pay close attention to portion sizes.
  • Keep moving — Exercise can help keep weight in check pre-pregnancy and prevent too much weight gain during pregnancy. Exercise also helps the body to be more sensitive to the insulin the pancreas produces for better blood sugar control. It is recommended women get aerobic and resistance exercise at moderate intensity for at least three times per week for 30-60 minutes each time.
  • Don't gain more weight than recommended during pregnancy — Gaining some weight during pregnancy is normal and healthy. Gaining too much can raise the risk of gestational diabetes. A woman’s doctor can help determine what a reasonable amount of weight gain is for her.

Mom's Meals® can help

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The importance of nutritional support for better maternal health

Free brochure offer insights

Learn more about the role of nutrition and what factors shape a mother’s health and her baby’s well-being from birth well into the future when you download the brochure, The Importance of Nutritional Support for Better Maternal Health.