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Gestational Diabetes: What You Need to Know to Manage or Prevent It

A midwife shares why gestational diabetes might develop, tips for reducing unnecessary risks for you and your baby and much more.

Gestational diabetes affects about 10% of pregnant people every year. Over the past few years, studies have shown that rates for gestational diabetes are on the rise. Many experts believe the effects of the pandemic have played a significant role in this increase.

How do we ensure these rates don’t continue to climb and that people can have healthy pregnancies? “Education is key,” says certified nurse midwife Meredith Stein. “It’s important to understand the risk factors for gestational diabetes and how it can impact your body so you can take the best care of yourself before and during pregnancy.”

Gestational diabetes is diagnosed only during pregnancy. When diagnosed early, it is very manageable.

It occurs when your body can’t produce enough insulin, leading to high blood sugar that can affect the health of you and your baby.

Below, Stein walks us through what you need to know about the disease and how you can manage it if you do develop it, as well as how you can prevent it before pregnancy.

What puts you at risk for gestational diabetes?

The risk for gestational diabetes is higher for people over age 35, those who are overweight, people who have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and those who are prediabetic or have a family history of type II diabetes or high blood pressure. There is also a high occurrence of gestational diabetes in low-income and Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.

Unfortunately, gestational diabetes usually shows no symptoms and can develop in people regardless of their health or medical history. “Some otherwise very healthy pregnant people can still experience gestational diabetes,” explains Stein. “The placenta causes a defect in how their bodies respond to the natural insulin they produce.”

Impact on Your Body and Pregnancy

Jefferson Health OB/GYN and midwifery experts screen all pregnant people for gestational diabetes as a standard of care, with a blood sugar test between 26 and 28 weeks of pregnancy. “Ninety-five percent of people diagnosed are no longer diabetic after giving birth,” says Stein.“But it’s important to screen for gestational diabetes because, if left unmanaged, it can put both the pregnant person and baby at risk.”

Unmanaged gestational diabetes puts you at a higher risk of developing type II diabetes later in life. It can also lead to higher blood pressure and complications during pregnancy and birth. The primary risks for the baby include excessive growth in the womb and potentially low blood sugar once born; other medical conditions, such as jaundice and diabetes later in life, are also possible.

How to Best Manage Gestational Diabetes

Complications associated with gestational diabetes are less likely to happen if the patient is actively engaged in their health care during their pregnancy.

“Managing gestational diabetes is a daily commitment,” adds Stein. She recommends that all patients with gestational diabetes:

  • Check their blood sugar multiples times a day
  • Manage their diet and food intake
  • Exercise routinely
  • Take any prescribed medication or insulin shots
  • Have more prenatal visits with their provider to stay on track.

“We encourage patients to take this care regimen seriously, so they can have the healthiest pregnancy possible and avoid preventable risks,” adds Stein. “Most people with gestational diabetes have successful pregnancies and birth outcomes, but it takes a lot of effort and teamwork throughout the pregnancy.”

How to Prevent Gestational Diabetes

Leading a healthy lifestyle before you get pregnant is the best way to prevent gestational diabetes. “If you’re overweight or have a family history of diabetes, talk to your provider about what healthy changes might work for your lifestyle, such as walking daily or limiting processed foods,” recommends Stein.

Pregnancy support groups are also a great resource to help educate and engage patients and support their pregnancy goals, says Stein. Jeffersons CenteringPregnancy® program combines prenatal care and group support, learning and bonding. Expectant parents with similar due dates are grouped together to discuss common concerns and experiences.

“Through group learning and an emphasis on social support, the Centering model of prenatal care has been shown to improve birth outcomes,” says Stein. “It makes patients feel more empowered, and when they are more empowered, there are better outcomes.”

[Main photo credit: dragana991/iStock/ Getty Images Plus via Getty Images]

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