Gestational Diabetes: Feeding your baby
Gestational Diabetes and Your Baby's Health
Gestational diabetes can put your baby at risk for health problems, but you can help lower those chances.
By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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Insulin, a hormone produced by your pancreas, is necessary to move glucose (or sugar) into your cells after your body breaks down food for energy. During pregnancy, your body becomes less sensitive to the effects of insulin, which can lead to what’s known as gestational diabetes. If you have gestational diabetes, your blood sugar can become too high, creating a number of health risks for your baby.
Gestational Diabetes and Your Baby's Health
If your blood sugar remains consistently elevated during pregnancy, the excess sugar can pass through your womb to your unborn baby. This can increase your child’s future risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Other health risks associated with gestational diabetes include:
- Macrosomia.This term simply means "big baby" and applies to any baby whose birth weight is above 8 pounds, 13 ounces. A baby with macrosomia can experience difficulties during the childbirth process. The most common problem that big babies encounter is damage to the nerves and muscles in their shoulders during vaginal delivery. Your doctor will monitor the size of your baby by performing ultrasound exams throughout your pregnancy. If your doctor is concerned about the size of your baby, a Caesarean section may be recommended.
- Hypoglycemia.If your unborn baby is exposed to high blood sugar levels while in the womb, the baby will eventually make extra insulin on its own to deal with the excess sugar. This surge in insulin can cause the baby's glucose to drop sharply right after birth, a condition called "hypoglycemia." Low blood sugar is dangerous because your baby depends almost exclusively on glucose for energy at the time of birth. Signs and symptoms of hypoglycemia include seizures, sluggishness, and difficulty breathing. For this reason, doctors will check your baby's blood glucose right after birth. If the glucose level is low, your baby will be given a sugar solution until the blood levels stabilize.
- Jaundice.This is a yellow discoloration of your baby's skin caused by bilirubin, a pigment produced when red blood cells break down. Many newborn babies have jaundice, but the condition is more common in babies whose mothers have gestational diabetes. Babies with jaundice may be weak and have trouble feeding. Your baby's blood will be tested for bilirubin. A special light that gets rid of the bilirubin pigment may be used to treat your baby.
Long-Term Effects of Gestational Diabetes on Your Baby
Children who are born to mothers with gestational diabetes are at risk for being overweight, developing type 2 diabetes in the future, and may have some increased risk of learning disabilities.
- Obesity.The observation that children of mothers who had diabetes during their pregnancy are at higher risk for being overweight was first recognized decades ago. This link between gestational diabetes and childhood obesity is now well-established.
- Type 2 diabetes.Studies show that both you and your baby have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes at some point. Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of diabetes, is typically caused by insulin resistance that prevents your body from using glucose properly. Being overweight increases the risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Learning disability.If your gestational diabetes is poorly controlled, your body may start to rely on fat and muscle tissue, rather than glucose, as a source of energy. This can result in breakdown products known as "ketones." Some studies suggest that exposure to ketones can cause babies to have a lower IQ and learning problems later in life. These studies have not been confirmed and are still controversial, but they are another reason to keep your gestational diabetes under good control.
Though gestational diabetes has been linked to several health risks for your baby, there is a lot you can do to protect your child’s health. The most important thing you can do is to stay as healthy as possible during your pregnancy. Work with your doctors and diabetes educators to develop a nutritious eating plan and safe exercise program. You may also want to breastfeed your baby, since some research suggests that breastfeeding may lower your child's risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Finally, remember that good nutrition and regular exercise are the best way to reduce the risk of obesity and diabetes for both you and your child. Be a good example and enjoy a healthy future together.
Video: Gestational Diabetes: Managing Risk During and After Pregnancy Video - Brigham and Women’s Hospital
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