Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes which affects women during pregnancy - in most cases, it can be easily controlled and won't cause any major issues. But if left unchecked, it can present some problems for your baby down the line and so, of course, it's a good idea to do all you can to avoid developing it in the first place.
What is it?
Diabetes is a condition whereby there is too much sugar (or glucose) in the blood. It happens when the body is unable to produce a sufficient amount of the hormone insulin to control sugar levels.
Gestational diabetes refers to diabetes that occurs because of pregnancy (ie, when diabetes has not been diagnosed previously). According to the NHS, diabetes affects between 2 of pregnant women in England and Wales - the majority of those cases are gestational diabetes, the remainder are women who have diabetes Type 1 or Type 2. It is thought that up to 20% of women diagnosed with gestational diabetes may have had Type 2 diabetes before becoming pregnant, without realising it.
Gestational diabetes tends to occur in the second half of pregnancy and happens as a result of pregnancy hormones making your body more insulin-resistant. They're designed to do this, actually – so that the increased amount of sugar and nutrients in your blood flow goes to your unborn baby to help them grow. Usually, this would, in turn, lead to your pancreas producing more insulin - but some women can not produce enough insulin to transport the glucose into the cells.
There are some risk factors associated with gestational diabetes: if you are overweight and have a body mass index (BMI) over 30, if you have had gestational diabetes before, if you have previously had a large baby weighing more than 4.5kg, or if close family have diabetes, you are more at risk. Women who eat a well balanced diet, who do not smoke and who take regular exercise are less likely to develop the condition.
If your midwife thinks you may be at risk of gestational diabetes, she will probably arrange for you to be tested for it between 24 and 28 weeks. It's likely you'll be offered a blood test, and your midwife might also test your urine for sugar during your routine antenatal appointments.
Sometimes, gestational diabetes seems not to have any symptoms, but when they do occur they can include blurred vision, tiredness, feeling very thirsty and needing to wee very frequently.
In most cases, gestational diabetes can be controlled and it will not pose any serious threat to either you or your baby. But left unchecked it can cause some problems - for one, your baby will be receiving too much sugar and could grow very large (ouch). Also, your baby might need treatment for low blood sugar levels (hypoglycaemia) after birth, and they might develop jaundice. Children whose mothers have gestational diabetes are thought to be more prone to obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life. So there are plenty of reason to do all you can to avoid developing it in the first place.
What can I do?
In terms of prevention, there is plenty you can do to reduce your risk of developing gestational diabetes - and really it's mostly about eating sensibly, taking regular gentle exercise and staying in control of your weight gain.
Although, when pregnant (and ravenously hungry some of the time) it can be tempting to eat lots of starchy and sugary foods, to give you quick energy fixes, you should be concentrating on eating the right things: whole grains, seeds, lean protein, healthy fats, fruit and vegetables.
And while you might not feel like jumping on a treadmill twice a week, just taking strolls and swimming can help a great deal to regulate your weight gain.
If you were overweight before becoming pregnant, your midwife might advise you on how to keep your calorie intake under control to stay healthy - and if you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes, the chances are, it can be kept in check simply by following advice regarding eating well and exercising. You'll especially need to cut down on sugary foods and drinks, and your midwife will show you how to check your own blood sugar levels.
If eating well and exercising does not have the desired effect, you might need to either take medication or inject yourself with insulin. Your doctor will give you all the advice you need if that is the case. Extra ultrasound scans will be offered during the latter weeks of your pregnancy, to keep an eye on your baby's growth.
It's very likely that, once your baby has been born, the gestational diabetes will go and your blood sugar levels will return to normal. You will be checked at the hospital, and again at your postnatal check with your GP. If it's discovered that you still have diabetes, it's possible you had Type 2 diabetes all along, and you'll be offered advice regrading lifestyle and medication.
One downside is that if you develop gestational diabetes with your first pregnancy, you're likely to get it again with subsequent pregnancies - but by then you'll be armed with all the knowledge and experience you need to keep it under control.