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Gestational Diabetes & Hypoglycemia

Instructor: Bridgett Payseur

Bridgett has a PhD in microbiology and immunology and teaches college biology.

Gestational diabetes refers to a higher than normal blood sugar during pregnancy. How does this condition then lead to hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar? Read this lesson to find out!

What is Gestational Diabetes?

Diabetes is known for being pretty prevalent in the U.S. In 2012, almost 30 million Americans were diabetic. But did you know you can sometimes be diabetic just from becoming pregnant?

Gestational diabetes is caused by the placenta producing too many insulin-blocking hormones. Insulin is a hormone produced by the mother's pancreas to help her cells absorb sugar (glucose) from the blood stream. This a condition that affects nearly 10% of pregnant women.

The placenta down-regulates the mother's insulin so the fetus is able to absorb more sugar. However, because her insulin is not working as well, the mother is no longer able to maintain proper blood sugar levels. Her blood sugar levels will therefore increase.

Effects of Gestational Diabetes on the Fetus

Because more sugar is staying in the mother's blood, more of it is transferred to the fetus. The fetus produces its own insulin, which it uses to bring all the extra sugar into its cells. The extra sugar is then stored as fat. This results in excessive fetal growth, called macrosomia ('macro-' refers to 'big', and '-somia' refers to 'body').

Macrosomia can lead to shoulder injuries when passing through the birth canal. If the baby is too large to pass through the birth canal, a C-section may be required.

When a mother has gestational diabetes, the baby is often at higher risk for obesity and type II diabetes later in life.

Hypoglycemia

Oddly enough, increased blood sugar levels in mother and baby could lead to hypoglycemia, a medical term that means low blood sugar. How can this happen?

In utero, the fetus produces its own insulin to absorb the sugar it gets from the mother. However, once it is born, the baby is no longer receiving mom's sugar-rich blood. At the same time, the baby still has a lot of insulin. This causes a drop in blood sugar soon after birth.

Newborns of mothers with gestational diabetes are monitored after birth to ensure their blood sugar doesn't drop dangerously low. This can often be treated simply with extra feedings, whether with breast milk or formula. However, sometimes the baby may require an intravenous sugar solution. This mostly occurs when the baby is unable to eat on its own or has experienced severely low blood sugar.

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