SOUTH KINGSTOWN — They may be eight years apart, live in different states and work in different fields, but these two sisters and Westerly natives are not only close friends, they share a common goal: helping new parents learn the necessary skills to make sleeptime safe for infants.
Ashley Gingerella O’Shea, 35, who graduated from Westerly High School in 2003, is the director of strategic communications for Rhode Island’s Health and Human Services and lives in Exeter. Her sister, Nicole Gingerella, 27, who graduated from Westerly High School in 2011, is a labor and delivery nurse at South County Hospital and lives in Voluntown.
Both sisters encourage new parents to learn the ABCs of safe sleep for new babies and make sure as many new parents as possible receive copies of the children’s board book, “Sleep Baby Safe and Sung,” by Dr. John Hutton and illustrated by Leah Busch, when they head home from the hospital.
The book is full of safe sleep instructions and reminders for parents how to place their babies in the safest sleeping environments and is given, free, to Rhode Island hospitals with maternity departments, a gift from the state.
O’Shea, who has two children — soon-to-be-six-year-old Caitlin Elizabeth O’Shea, and three and a half-year-old Jack Patrick O’Shea — said one of the communication priorities for HHS is to highlight a program called “Safe Sleep,” which provides newborn and infants sleep information for new parents.
“It’s an issue that’s near and dear to our hearts,” said O’Shea, noting that not that long ago, she and her husband, Michael were new parents, and Nicole was there to help.
“Nicole was our nanny when Caitlin was born,” she said, “and baby Caitlin was influential in Nicole’s decision to become a labor and delivery nurse.”
Gingerella said originally she’d be interested in working with the elderly population so had considered nursing from that angle.
“In high school,” she recalled, she even organized a “Seniors Senior Prom” on Valentine’s Day for her senior project.
But after nannying for her niece, Caitlin, she became more interested in maternal-child health while a nursing student at the University of Rhode Island, and then landed her ideal job at South County Hospital in labor and delivery.
“We work with local birthing hospitals, such as South County Hospital, to share resources with parents,” said O’Shea, stressing that times have changed as far as infant sleep recommendations.
No longer do experts recommend putting babies on their tummies or having them snuggled next to you in the family bed, O’Shea said, it’s important not to let newborns sleep in an adult bed, on a couch, or on a chair.
Included in the resources shared with new parents is information about the best sleeping practices for newborns, she said, like: always place your baby on his or her back to sleep; use a firm sleep surface, such as on a safety-approved crib mattress, covered by a fitted sheet; never use pillows, blankets, sheepskins, toys, soft objects or crib bumpers anywhere in baby’s sleep area, and always keep your baby’s sleep area close to yours.
A favorite phrase is “Share a room, but not a bed.”
It is also recommended that new parents consider “using a clean, dry pacifier when placing your baby down to sleep after breastfeeding has been established.”
In colder weather, O’Shea said, the recommendation is to dress the baby in one more layer adults and to be careful not to let baby overheat during sleep.
Also, she said, “understand which products are safe for sleep, and include only safe items on your registry.”
Basically, the goal is to educate new parents about the latest research in safe sleep, O’Shea said.
“We have lost too many babies, so we are working together with our hospitals to educate parents on sleep-related safety,” O’Shea said.
Gingerella said when new parents leave South County Hospital, they are each given a copy of “Sleep Baby Safe and Snug,” which is tucked into a small “pram-shaped” container.
O’Shea said people in the the state first learned about the book from a colleague, Margo Katz, the assistant health program administrator of the state’s Safe Sleep program. In 2019, Katz attended a Sleep Safe conference in Pittsburgh sponsored by a nonprofit organization called “Cribs for Kids,” and learned the story of the Hanke family, The Charlie’s Kids Foundation and the background of “Sleep Baby Safe and Snug.”
Sam Hanke, a pediatric cardiologist, and Maura Hanke, a kindergarten teacher, welcomed their firstborn, Charlie Paul Hanke into the world on April 6, 2010. Three weeks later, in the early morning hours of April 28, Charlie died, a victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and, they say on their website, “and an unsafe sleep environment.”
During the year that followed the loss of Charlie, “Maura and Sam slowly started to pick up the pieces and heal, but they needed to make sense of losing Charlie so soon,” says a post on their website. “Fueled by faith and the strength and encouragement of friends and family they looked for a bigger way to remember Charlie and most importantly try to prevent other families from suffering this same pain.”
Charlie’s Kids Foundation was founded on what would have been Charlie’s first birthday. The mission was clear, to raise awareness and support of SIDS by educating families, providing resources for new parents and promoting dialogue about SIDS and safe sleep practices.
The goal of Charlie’s Kids Foundation became a focused passion, the Hankes write. They wouldn’t rest until they developed and instituted a new outreach for SIDS education and safe sleep education. The Hankes commissioned Hutton, a pediatrician, to write the book.
“In one of Charlie’s Kids most exciting advocacy efforts,” the Hankes write, “’Sleep Baby Safe and Snug’ is now being included in every safe sleep survival kit distributed by the national organization Cribs for Kids.”
“The family turned this tragedy into advocacy,” O’Shea said. “And Charlie’s grandfather, Gary Hanke, runs the foundation.”
When Katz was at the Sleep Safe conference in Pittsburgh in 2019, she met Charlie’s grandfather, Gary Hanke. When Hanke later came to Rhode Island on vacation, he visited Katz and members of the state team, O’Shea said.
“They had an opportunity to sit down and talk about our work at the state level and his work through the foundation,” she said. “The Charlie’s Kids Foundation is a valued partner in our work to decrease preventable infant sleep related deaths.”
“In one of Charlie’s Kids most exciting advocacy efforts,” the Hankes write on their website, “’Sleep Baby Safe and Snug’ is now being included in every safe sleep survival kit distributed by the national organization Cribs for Kids.”
In order to reach as many families as possible, Charlie’s Kids has committed to donating 10,000 copies of “Sleep Baby Safe and Snug” each year to organizations or programs that promise to use them in safe sleep education initiatives.
The Gingerella sisters – daughters of David A. and Lisa Gingerella of Westerly — bought their own special copy of “Sleep Baby Safe and Snug” recently, and sent it off to New Jersey for the parents of baby Nora.
Baby Nora, or Eleanora Lisa Gingerella, is their niece, and the new daughter of their only brother, David T. Gingerella, a 2005 Westerly High School graduate, and his wife, Nikki.