The infant swings and bouncy seats that once lined the family room are gone. Now the fenced back yard looks like a preschool, with big kid swings, ride-on toys and stray sippy cups scattered across the lawn. Florida's first surviving sextuplets have become toddlers. "That was our stimulus check," mom Karoline said of the playground equipment. "But it was a good investment." On Tuesday, the Byler sixpack — Brady Christopher, Eli Benjamin, Ryan Patrick, Jackson Robert, Charlie Craig and lone girl MacKenzie Margaret — will turn 2.
It's a milestone their parents don't think is too terrible.
"It's easier now," said Karoline, who happily noted that all six usually sleep through the night, can drink from cups and feed themselves.
They arrived as preemies at Bayfront Medical Center on Labor Day weekend 2007, 2 1/2 months before most singletons. Had they gone the normal 40 weeks, they would have been born Nov. 13. With ankles as big around as their mother's thumb, they weighed in at 3 pounds or less.
The births drew worldwide media attention, including an exclusive contract with Inside Edition for Karoline and her husband, Ben. The couple had the babies after Karoline underwent hormone fertility treatments.
The community threw a huge shower, with sponsors donating baby gear and meals. Gov. Charlie Crist visited the babies in All Children's Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit.
Besides prompting a gubernatorial visit, the Byler births helped inspire the design of Bayfront's new Baby Place, set to open this December. It will be located in the new All Children's Hospital.
"It was altered to accommodate (multiple births)," said Dr. Karen Raimer, the St. Petersburg obstetrician who handled Karoline's prenatal care and the births. The new facility has larger rooms and more equipment.
"We think about them every year for Labor Day," added Michelle Griner, who was Karoline's nurse during the deliveries, which involved a 30-member medical team. "It's hard to believe it's been two years. They're becoming little people."
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It's 4 p.m., and the kids, fresh from an afternoon nap, are running around the back yard. The boys are dressed alike except one whose clothes got dirty and had to be changed.
"I told Ben I'd stop (dressing them alike) when they got to kindergarten," Karoline said.
For the most part, the children are healthy. All get therapy for speech delays, which is common for multiples, who often are premature and who copy each other's mispronunciations, a phenomenon known as "twin talk."
Charlie, who required oxygen even when he came home from the hospital, has asthma. He also has a condition that makes him unable to tolerate food textures, so he still eats the pureed stuff.
Ryan, whose condition was critical at one point shortly after the birth, has mild cerebral palsy and was the last to walk. He began taking steps in June. He wears special shoes and gets therapy to help with a slight limp.
All excel at different things. MacKenzie is the agile one, climbing on everything at Gymboree. Eli has the best fine motor skills and enjoys puzzles and small toys. Charlie can already perform a broad jump. Brady can completely undress himself without assistance, sometimes to his parents' embarrassment. Jackson, whom his parents call "the professor," has to thoroughly investigate anything before he'll get involved in it. Ryan is the biggest eater.
"He's the human garbage pail," Karoline said.
With the growth comes conflict. Biting. Hitting. Kicking. Jealousy over who gets to sit with mom or dad.
"It's gotten a lot wilder," Ben said.
Ben, who owns a Pepperidge Farm delivery route, has alone time at work. Karoline, a stay-at-home mom, still has nursing help due to Charlie's breathing issues. A few people from their church who volunteered in the beginning still help out.
"I can go to the store if I need to," she said. Her mother, who lives in The Villages, is within driving distance. Recently, the couple went on a cruise with their firstborn, 6-year-old Zoe, who just started first grade.
"School is good for her," Karoline said. "She gets to be her own person. She's not just the sister of sextuplets."
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Taking all six out at once is rare, though a new six-seat stroller they bought online will make that easier.
Earlier this year, Karoline loaded up the sixpack and took them to meet reality television star and fellow sextuplet mom Kate Gosselin at a book signing in Sarasota.
She spent 45 minutes in line, hoping for a nugget of wisdom from the star of Jon & Kate Plus 8.
When her turn came, Karoline said, Gosselin barely looked at them.
"She asked me why I brought all the kids," Karoline said. "Then she just moved onto the next person."
Karoline later wondered if Gosselin's snub had anything to do with revelations about Jon's relationship with another woman. Or perhaps it was just her celebrity.
"Maybe she forgets that she was in my position four or five years ago," Karoline said. She used to watch the show but refuses now "because it's all about their divorce."
The Bylers say they realize they could have pursued their own show, much like others who have had multiples. But they say they value their privacy and they want the kids to grow up as normal as possible.
So they try to limit media exposure to local outlets, though they did appear on Geraldo At Large.
Says Ben: "I wouldn't want cameras around us 24/7."
Lisa Buie can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604.