What is Gestational Diabetes and How Do You Test for It?

What is Gestational Diabetes and How Do You Test for It?

If you're pregnant and you have other besties with babies, chances are you've heard all about the dreaded glucose test. But if you're new to the preggo life, you might be wondering what on earth it is and why everyone seems so concerned about it. 

The glucose test is how your doc will test you for gestational diabetes during your pregnancy. I know, saying diabetes is scary. And chances are you're kind of freaking out because you didn't even know that was a thing! Well here's a little bit of info about gestational diabetes, how your doc will test for it, and how it could affect your pregnancy.

What is Gestational Diabetes?

Simply put, gestational diabetes occurs when you experience high blood sugar levels during your pregnancy. Our bodies naturally produce insulin in order to regulate our blood sugar levels, but when we're expecting, our bodies become more insulin resistant in order to preserve glucose (energy) for your babe. Sometimes this can cause your body to produce too much glucose, leading to higher blood sugar levels. 

According to the American Diabetes Association, "Gestational diabetes can also start when the mother’s body is not able to make and use all the insulin it needs for pregnancy. Without enough insulin, glucose can’t leave the blood and be changed into energy. When glucose builds up in the blood, it’s called hyperglycemia."

How Do You Get Gestational Diabetes?

There really isn't a clear cause for why certain women test positive for gestational diabetes and some don't, even though it can affect up to 10% of all US pregnancies. Like most annoying things that happen when you're pregnant, hormones are probably to blame--certain hormones that are essential to pregnancy in maintaining your placenta and ensuring that your baby receives appropriate amounts of glucose could be the reason why women experience diabetes while they're pregnant.

According to The Mayo Clinic, you may be at a higher risk for developing gestational diabetes if you:

  • Are overweight or obese
  • Are not physically active
  • Have prediabetes
  • Have had gestational diabetes during a previous pregnancy
  • Have polycystic ovary syndrome
  • Have an immediate family member with diabetes
  • Have previously delivered a baby weighing more than 9 pounds (4.1 kilograms)
  • Are of a certain race or ethnicity, such as Black, Hispanic, American Indian and Asian American

Pregnant woman cradles belly

How Does Your Doctor Test for Gestational Diabetes?

In most cases, women don't have obvious symptoms of gestational diabetes, though you may be at risk if you're noticing excessive hunger, excessive thirst, frequent urination, or fatigue--however, anyone who has been pregnant knows that these symptoms feel like the norm most of the time, which is why it's important for a doctor to perform a glucose test to know for sure.

In order to be tested, your doctor will give you a special sugary drink that you will have to drink in the course of a few minutes. Then an hour later you'll have your blood drawn to see how your body processed all the glucose in the drink.

If it turns out that your body's blood sugar is higher than necessary to metabolize the drink, you'll test positive for gestational diabetes. If you're on the bubble (meaning that your levels are higher than they should be but not enough to test positively), your doctor will order another test that you'll generally return for in a couple weeks to take. That test will be the same process, but a lot longer--you'll drink the same drink, but then you'll have your blood tested 4 times over a 3 hour period. If 2/4 come back abnormal, you'll test positive for gestational diabetes. 

Glucose test

How Will Gestational Diabetes Affect My Pregnancy?

If you test positive for gestational diabetes, don't worry--it happens to millions of women every year, so you're not alone! And for the most part, with prompt and responsible treatment, your pregnancy is going to look the same as a mama who tested negative--you'll be tired, sore, peeing constantly, and a little cranky, which are all symptoms of gestational diabetes AND pregnancy!

Most likely your doctor will recommend that you follow a stricter diet and exercise plan to keep your glucose levels under control. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe medications or insulin injections that require you to test your blood daily and will help keep you where you need to be.

Gestational diabetes is easy to treat, but it can be a real threat to you and your baby, so it's important that you start treating it immediately.

According to The Mayo Clinic, if you you leave your gestational diabetes, your baby may be at a higher risk of these complications:

  • Excessive birth weight. If your blood sugar level is higher than the standard range, it can cause your baby to grow too large. Very large babies — those who weigh 9 pounds or more — are more likely to become wedged in the birth canal, have birth injuries or need a C-section birth.
  • Early (preterm) birth. High blood sugar may increase the risk of early labor and delivery before the due date. Or early delivery may be recommended because the baby is large.
  • Serious breathing difficulties. Babies born early may experience respiratory distress syndrome — a condition that makes breathing difficult.
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). Sometimes babies have low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) shortly after birth. Severe episodes of hypoglycemia may cause seizures in the baby. Prompt feedings and sometimes an intravenous glucose solution can return the baby's blood sugar level to normal.
  • Obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life. Babies have a higher risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life.
  • Stillbirth. Untreated gestational diabetes can result in a baby's death either before or shortly after birth.

You may be at risk of:

  • High blood pressure and preeclampsia. Gestational diabetes raises your risk of high blood pressure, as well as preeclampsia — a serious complication of pregnancy that causes high blood pressure and other symptoms that can threaten both your life and your baby's life.
  • Having a surgical delivery (C-section). You're more likely to have a C-section if you have gestational diabetes.
  • Future diabetes. If you have gestational diabetes, you're more likely to get it again during a future pregnancy. You also have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes as you get older.

While it's important to be aware of the risks, remember that with treatment and a responsible lifestyle, most mamas will have normal pregnancies and healthy, happy babies.

The great news is that your gestational diabetes will most likely disappear right after delivery.

Pregnant woman stretching

When you're expecting a baby, there are so many what ifs, and it can be hard not to get freaked out by all of the worst case scenarios. But keep your cool, mama, and don't worry too much about the tests and the results. No matter what, you and your doc will do everything to make sure that babe arrives healthy and happy!

For a complete guide of everything you can expect during your pregnancy, from conception to birth, check out our post Your Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy!

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