The word ‘gestational’ simply means ‘relating to pregnancy’.
Most women with gestational diabetes have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies. However, sometimes gestational diabetes can cause problems for both you and your baby, particularly if it is not identified and treated.
Gestational diabetes can be thought of as an ‘early warning’ indicator that the woman has a higher than usual risk for type 2 diabetes in later life.
Causes of gestational diabetes
To understand what gestational diabetes is, it can help to understand how your body uses glucose.
Your body needs some glucose in your blood to provide energy. The levels of blood glucose levels are kept at safe limits in your body, by a hormone called insulin. If your glucose level is too high, you may become unwell.
When your blood glucose level is high (such as after a meal), insulin allows the extra glucose to be stored in your cells for later use. Then, when your blood glucose levels fall, another hormone (glucagon) releases some of that stored glucose to keep enough energy available to your body.
When you are pregnant, your body produces high levels of hormones. Some of these hormones stop insulin working as well as it normally does. Usually, the body responds by increasing the amount of insulin it produces. However, some women do not produce enough of this extra insulin, resulting in gestational diabetes.
"My health was fine until about 26 weeks into my pregnancy. Then at a routine appointment they noticed glucose in my urine, so they said they needed to do a test to rule out gestational diabetes. They told me I had it and asked me to attend the diabetic clinic the following day."Gemma, mum of one
Risk factors for gestational diabetes
- you had a body mass index (BMI) of more than 30 before you became pregnant
- you have previously given birth to a baby weighing 4.5kg (around 10lb) or more (macrosomia)
- you had gestational diabetes in a previous pregnancy
- you have a parent, brother, sister or child with diabetes
- your family are of black Caribbean, black African, South Asian or Middle Eastern origin.
Some women who develop gestational diabetes do not fall into any of these categories. They may have been tested for other reasons, such as glucose in the urine or if their baby seems large. As we find out more about gestational diabetes, more women from different risk categories are being tested. Being tested does not mean that you have it – just that you may be at higher risk.
- NHS Choices [accessed August 2014] Gestational diabetes - Complications http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/gestational-diabetes/Pages/Complications.aspx Review date: 08/2016.
- NICE (2015) Diabetes in pregnancy: management of diabetes and its complications from preconception to the postnatal period, National Institute of Health and Care Excellence https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng3
- NHS Choices [accessed August 2014] Diabetes - Overview http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Diabetes/Pages/Diabetes.aspxReview date: 08/2016
- NHS Choices [accessed August 2014] Gestational Diabetes - Causeshttp://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/gestational-diabetes/Pages/Causes.aspxReview date: 08/2016
If you are found to have gestational diabetes, this is likely to be a worrying time for you. It is natural to want your pregnancy to go smoothly and it is normal to be anxious if something unexpected happens.
Help and support managing gestational diabetes
For most women, glucose levels return to normal the moment the baby is born, when your hormones return to their natural levels, and you will stop any treatment immediately.
Today, for women with gestational diabetes, the emphasis is on trying to keep the birth as normal as possible unless there is a particular reason to do things differently.
Exercise during pregnancy has a wide range of benefits for you and your baby. If you have gestational diabetes, you have even more reason to exercise: it can help reduce your blood glucose.
If you have diabetes in pregnancy, your choice of food is an important part of managing your condition.
Some women can control their glucose levels through diet and exercise alone but the majority will need to take tablets or injections to help control it.
Once you have been diagnosed with gestational diabetes, your pregnancy care will change. This is to make sure that everything is done to reduce the risk of any harm to you and your baby.
If you have gestational diabetes, you will have been told that gestational diabetes holds risks to the mother and baby, but women tell us they are not always clear exactly what those risks are.
Women with gestational diabetes often do not have any symptoms at all, and this is why women are all monitored for it by routine checks in pregnancy.
Gestational diabetes is one of the conditions that midwives will be looking out for during your normal appointment schedule. If you have it, it will be spotted through tests.
ℹLast reviewed on March 1st, 2015. Next review date March 1st, 2018.