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As if a healthy pregnancy wasn’t hard enough.

Pregnant SillouetteAround week 24 of pregnancy, many women develop high blood sugar levels. When this occurs, it’s known as gestational diabetes mellitus—a.k.a. GDM. This doesn’t mean a woman had diabetes prior to pregnancy and it doesn’t mean she’ll necessarily have the disease after the baby is born. But it does mean the mother and baby need special monitoring and care. While this may cause concern for mothers-to-be, the right treatment ensures the pregnancy can progress smoothly and the baby can be healthy and full term.

All pregnant women should be screened for GDM between week 24 and 28 of their pregnancy, unless they’re high risk. In that case, they should be screened as early as possible. The test involves drinking a sweet liquid and having a blood test one hour later to monitor blood sugar levels.

With gestational diabetes on the rise, knowing all you can about the condition now will ensure a healthy pregnancy later.

What Causes GDM?

It’s largely unknown why most women sail through pregnancy with normal blood sugar and others develop high levels. However, research has provided some clues as to what causes gestational diabetes. The baby receives nourishment and hormones from the placenta. These hormones also work to block the mother’s insulin, slowing the conversion of glucose to energy so the mother maintains her blood sugar levels. When too much of these hormones are produced and the mother’s pancreas can’t produce enough insulin to counteract their effect, glucose levels rise and the mother is diagnosed with gestational diabetes.

How Does GDM Affect the Baby?

Since gestational diabetes doesn’t set in until late in the pregnancy, it doesn’t pose a risk for birth defects. Leave it untreated, however, and the baby will be exposed to extra glucose and other potential health problems. Initially, the baby’s pancreas will produce high amounts of insulin. All this extra energy will be stored as fat and can cause the baby to grow to a large size, resulting in a more difficult delivery. Babies born to mothers with GDM may have low blood sugar levels, breathing problems, and jaundice at birth, and are at an increased risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life.

How Is GDM Treated?

To protect the health of the baby and mother, GDM must be treated by controlling blood sugar levels through diet and regular exercise. The mother’s glucose levels may have to be checked daily and insulin injections may be necessary.

Managing GDM means eating frequent, small meals throughout the day. Fried and fatty foods should be avoided and carbohydrates should make up only 40 to 45 percent of the day’s total calories. High-fiber foods, plenty of water, fruits, and vegetables are important parts of the diet.

All pregnant women should include mild to moderate exercise in their routine three to four days a week. But be careful! If you’re living with GDM, you’ll need to monitor your blood sugar following exercise to make sure you stay in a safe zone.

What Can You Do to Lower Your Risk?

Women who are overweight before becoming pregnant are at the highest risk for GDM. Other risk factors include a family history of diabetes, having previously given birth to a stillborn baby or a baby weighing more than nine pounds, having had GDM in a previous pregnancy, and being of a certain ethnic group (Black, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American). Many women are diagnosed with GDM even though they don’t have any risk factors.

The best way to decrease your chances of developing GDM during your pregnancy is to lose a few pounds if you’re overweight and to avoid excessive weight gain during pregnancy. A well-balanced diet and regular exercise are the best ways to stay healthy and maintain a proper weight.

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