The most premature triplets to ever survive in the UK have defied the odds to celebrate their first birthday.
Max, Lucas and Harvey Udell spent three months battling for their lives after they were born 15 weeks premature.
The tiny brothers, from Trowbridge, Wiltshire, weighed less than 2lb each when they arrived at 24 weeks and five days.
They were delivered by emergency caesarean section and whisked straight into intensive care, where they underwent 12 blood transfusions between them.
But this week parents Rachael and Ashley Udell were able to celebrate the day they were scared their sons would never see – their first birthday.
Little Max now weighs 12lb 13oz after being born at 1lb 4oz.
His identical twin Lucas has grown from 1lb 6oz to 15lb 6oz and their brother Harvey weighs 16lb, after being born at 1lb6oz.
Mrs Udell 32, said: ‘I’m very proud of my little fighters. They went through so much after they were born.
‘I feel so lucky to have them all here. They’re amazing boys.
‘It was hilarious watching them fiddle with wrapping paper and scoff their cake. I was tearful a number of times.
‘It’s strange in a way because I felt so happy to be celebrating with them, but their birthday also brought back memories of how difficult and scary things were at first.
Rachael, a former medical secretary, and gardener husband Ashley, 30, couldn’t wait to have children – and started trying immediately after their wedding in May, 2010.
Mrs Udell said: ‘I have polycystic ovaries, so we were worried about my chances of conceiving. It took a year and a half for me to get pregnant. And we got more than we bargained for.’
At 20 weeks, Rachael was signed off work due to pelvic pain. And less than five weeks later she was rushed to St Michael’s Hospital in Bristol for an emergency C-section.
She said: ‘I was awake for everything. When the boys came out they looked so tiny, like little dolls.’
The babies were taken immediately to be put in incubators.
A number of health scares followed and all three of the boys were put on ventilators – with Max the last to come off after two months.
At one point, Max’s stomach burst and he had to have an operation to repair it, while the parents waited anxiously to see if he would survive.
Harvey then had septicaemia, a form of blood poisoning.
Eventually, the little boys were transferred one by one to the Royal United Hospital in Bath, where they stayed until they were allowed home on February 18, still three weeks short of their March 6 due date.
Rachael said: ‘It was a very strange time for us.
‘While the boys were in hospital, especially at first, it was almost like an out-of-body experience. We existed in our own bubble inside the hospitals. Every day it seemed there was a new emergency and we were constantly terrified and exhausted.’
‘Last Christmas was the worst. Harvey and Lucas had been transferred to Bath, but Max was still in Bristol. We spent half a day with each, and wound up having pizza for dinner. We didn’t buy the boys any presents – we didn’t dare in case they didn’t make it.
‘This year will be completely different. We’ll have presents and a big dinner at home before heading off to see family. It’s amazing what a difference a year makes.’
Before the triplets’ arrival, Rachael and Ashley enjoyed nights out for dinner and seeing friends at the pub.
But now every day has a strict routine. Initially, Rachael was breastfeeding all three boys – for three hours at a time, with just a one hour break in between.
Now, her day is a series of feeds, nappy changes, play time and chasing the boys around from 5.30am to 7pm, when she collapses on the couch with a glass of wine to watch Emmerdale.
She said: ‘My life completely changed with the boys. I have very little time to myself. In fact, we hardly leave the house because it’s so difficult. I spend most of my time in old track suit bottoms and T-shirts with no make-up on.
‘But I would never complain. I love my boys more than anything.
‘I love watching them interact. Harvey, the biggest and last to be born, is the sensitive one. He looks completely different to the other two, who are identical twins. He has dark hair and brown eyes, while the other two have light hair and blue eyes.
‘He’s our gentle giant. The other two are more rough and tumble. Lucas is feisty and outgoing. He’ll crawl over to strangers for a babble. Max is like a little dolly, bless him.
‘They will kiss and cuddle each other – it’s obvious they’re friends.’
The boys are now completely healthy, after a brief scare in April when Max had to return to hospital for five nights with a bad case of bronchiolitis.
Mrs Udell said: ‘Ashley and I make it work because we’re a team, but it has been tough on our relationship.
‘My parents take the boys for one weekend each month, just so I have some time to sit and think. Sometimes we’ll meet friends at a pub, but often we’re too tired. Our marriage has had to go on the back burner to be honest. But we keep going because we know one day it will be back to normal, when the boys are older.
‘Sometimes it’s lonely being a mum of multiples – spending so much time at home. But I would never wish my boys away.
‘They melt my heart and I’m so happy to be a mum of three. I just never expected they would all come at the same time