Because gestational diabetes occurs only during pregnancy, women who have been diagnosed with this disorder likely will be concerned about how the diagnosis will affect their growing babies. While the majority of women who've developed gestational diabetes deliver healthy babies, complications can occur – especially if the disease is poorly managed or diagnosed late in the pregnancy.
Gestational diabetes typically doesn't affect the health of the baby in the womb and does not contribute to chromosomal abnormalities such as Down's syndrome. Still, the condition can cause complications during childbirth, says Dr. Jeanne Mrozek, medical director of the NICU at the Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.
"Gestational diabetes can lay the foundation for difficulties with labor, delivery and transition to extra-uterine life," Mrozek says. "Most commonly, babies grow too well in utero, resulting in higher birth weights and larger babies." Large babies – or babies that weigh more than 9 pounds – can result in birth trauma, particularly if there is discordance between the size of the baby and the birth canal, Mrozek explains.
"The birth trauma can range from the temporary, such as a broken clavicle that will heal in a few weeks, to severe and permanent brain injury from a baby getting 'stuck' in the birth canal," she says.
Mrozek states that gestational diabetes can also directly affect the health of a baby following birth, including how well he transitions to life outside the womb. "The increased insulin levels present in a mother with diabetes also are present in the developing baby, as insulin can cross the placenta," she explains. "The increased insulin levels can slow down lung maturation and increase the chances that a baby will have breathing problems after birth."
In addition, a mother's increased insulin levels can cause babies to be born with low blood sugar, necessitating intravenous fluids to correct this condition. Babies born to mothers who have gestational diabetes also may have jaundice or yellowing of the skin at birth, or low levels of magnesium or calcium in their blood, requiring supplementation.
Very rarely will a baby develop diabetes or birth defects as a result of his mother having gestational diabetes. Birth defects usually form during the first trimester of pregnancy, when a baby's vital organs are forming, and gestational diabetes usually doesn't occur until after the 24th week of pregnancy, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development explains.
Still, your baby could be at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. If a baby was larger than 9 pounds at birth, he also may be at an increased risk for both childhood and adult obesity, which can compound the risk of developing diabetes. As they grow, all children – especially those born to mothers who had gestational diabetes – should follow a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise to help reduce the risk.
Provided it is properly treated and managed, most mothers who have gestational diabetes will go on to deliver full-term babies with no complications. Adverse outcomes can occur, though, if the condition goes unchecked or is poorly managed. If a mother's blood sugar levels soar too high, blood flow to the placenta – and, therefore, the delivery of oxygen to your baby – can be affected, resulting in stillbirth, the Eastern Virginia Medical School Medical Group notes. If you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes before pregnancy, are at risk for developing pre-diabetes or are diagnosed with gestational diabetes during pregnancy, it is crucial that you work with your health care provider before, during and after your pregnancy to control your blood sugar levels.