Women with diabetes are at four and a half times higher risk for death of their unborn babies compared to pregnant women without the disease, according to a new study. The babies that do survive face double the risk for death during the first year of life.

Diabetes is a condition marked by high levels of sugar in the bloodstream. Usually, the hormone insulin delivers sugar from the bloodstream to cells that use sugar for energy. The high blood sugar levels associated with diabetes are the result of inadequate insulin production or body cells that become resistant to insulin.

Past research already established an association between pre-existing diabetes in mothers and deaths of fetuses and infants but these studies did not exclude other causes of death, such as birth defects. The study, published in the European medical journal Diabetologia, sets itself apart from the others by looking exclusively at the association between maternal diabetes and babies without congenital problems.

A team of researchers from various universities, trusts, and the government organization, Public Health England, reviewed information gathered from the Northern Survey of Diabetes in Pregnancy. They identified the offspring of 1,206 mothers with type 1 diabetes and 342 women with type 2 diabetes. The scientists assessed each for their relative risk for fetal death occurring after 20 weeks gestation and for infant death within one year of birth.

The scientists found that mothers who had diabetes before becoming pregnant were 4.56 times more likely to experience fetal death; their babies were 1.86 more apt to die within the first year of life. The research showed the rate of fetal death among diabetic mothers was 3 percent while the rate of infant death was 0.7 percent. In women without this condition, fetal death rates were 0.7 percent and infant death rates were 0.4 percent.

The research showed no difference in fetal and infant mortality rates between women with type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong condition, often caused by a birth defect affecting the pancreas. Type 2 diabetes, which is much more common than type 1 diabetes, develops later in life.

Women with poor blood sugar control or certain types of complications from pregnancy are at higher risk for fetal and infant mortality. This result prompted the study authors to urge women with diabetes to gain control of their blood sugar levels and engage in prenatal care to reduce the risk of complications.

Source: Bell, Ruth. "New Research Shows Pre-existing Diabetes in Pregnancy Greatly Increases the Risk of Death of the Fetus or Infant Child." Diabetologia. 27 Nov. 2013. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.