In the United States, about 4 percent of all pregnant women develop diabetes during pregnancy. Left untreated, gestational diabetes can cause babies to be born overweight and to have other health problems.
And there's another reason for pregnant women who develop diabetes to be concerned, according to Endocrinologist Teresa Hillier of the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research. She led a study looking at more than 9,000 women in the Northwestern United States and Hawaii, who gave birth between 1995 and 2000.
Hillier and her colleagues hypothesized that they would find a relationship between increasing blood sugar level of the expectant mother, and increasing risk of obesity for the child. And in fact they found one. "Gestational diabetes," says Hillier, "nearly doubled the risk of the child becoming obese five to seven years later."
Previous, smaller-scale studies had already suggested a link between gestational diabetes and childhood obesity. But this was the first study to examine this relationship in such a large and ethnically diverse group. The study population included women of Caucasian, Hawaiian, Native American, Pacific Islander, Japanese, Chinese, Hispanic, and African-American descent. "The relationship that we saw […] was consistent with all ethnic groups," Hillier says.
But, she adds, that relationship can be prevented. Her research showed that the link between gestational diabetes and childhood obesity could be broken. If the mother received treatment during pregnancy, Hillier explains, "the risk of obesity for the child was no different, compared to women with normal blood sugar, suggesting that this obesity risk was reversible."
Hillier says that finding shows how critical it is for women who are diagnosed with diabetes during pregnancy to follow through on their treatment. "If the mother sticks to the treatment," she says, "it may not only benefit the child during the pregnancy and at birth, but potentially reduce the risk for obesity for the child in the long term."
The results of this study are published in the September issue of Diabetes Care, a journal of the American Diabetes Association, which funded this research.