Gestational diabetes affects 2-3% of pregnant women and is associated with foetal complications including macrosomia and an increased likelihood of developing diabetes in later life. We have therefore studied seven women with gestational diabetes and five control women both during the third trimester of pregnancy and again 2-3 months post-partum, using the minimal model analysis of the frequently sampled labelled ([6,6-2H2]-glucose) intravenous glucose tolerance test. Glucose tolerance (glucose Kd) was significantly reduced in the women with gestational diabetes compared with the normal pregnant women both in pregnancy (1.16 +/- 0.11 vs 1.78 +/- 0.23%/min; p < 0.05) and post-partum (1.47 +/- 0.22 vs 2.59 +/- 0.43%/min; p < 0.05) and increased significantly in the control women after delivery (p < 0.05). Glucose effectiveness was not significantly different between the women with gestational diabetes and the control group either during or after pregnancy. Insulin sensitivity was significantly lower during pregnancy than after delivery in the women with gestational diabetes (p < 0.05). There was no significant difference in basal insulin secretion in the two groups during pregnancy or post-partum. However, during pregnancy the control subjects significantly increased (p < 0.001) their insulin secretion over a period of 20 min in response to an intravenous glucose tolerance test (96.2 +/- 42.7 pmol/kg) compared with post-partum values (58.3 +/- 25.2 pmol/kg) while in the women with gestational diabetes insulin secretion was similar in pregnancy (65.5 +/- 9.3 pmol/kg) and after delivery (57.7 +/- 15.7 pmol/kg). These data suggest that the glucose intolerance in gestational diabetes compared to normal pregnancy is due to reduced insulin sensitivity and an impaired ability in gestational diabetes to increase insulin secretion in response to glucose.