KEITH DILLEY COLLAPSES ONTO the beige sofa in the living room of his father's ranch house in Greenfield. Ind. It is late morning, and all is quiet as six babies, each in his or her windup swing, rock peacefully in front of the stone fireplace. "It scares me when they sleep during the day," says Dilley, 30, eyeing his brood warily. "I worry they're saving up energy for the night."

The scenario would terrify any new parent. Last May 25, Keith's wife, Becki, 27, gave birth to sextuplets, the first set born in the U.S. in this century. The Dilley babies (in order of birth), Brenna, Julian, Quinn, Claire, Ian and Adrian, are only the eighth set of sextuplets to be born this century since the first sixsome on record was delivered in Sri Lanka in 1947. "I always wanted children," says Becki. "I just thought they would come one at a time."

Instead she got an instant half-dozen. Since September the family has been living with Keith's father, Larry, while awaiting construction of a four-bedroom house scheduled for completion this spring. And for the past eight weeks, Keith has been tending the kids while Becki has been working four days a week as a licensed practical nurse in the bone-marrow transplant unit at Indiana University Medical Center. "It's definitely a change in lifestyle," says Keith, who adds that Becki's income allowed him to quit his job in food processing to become a full-time parent at least until the children go to school.

Keith's daily routine would challenge an efficiency expert. Around 6 a.m., when Becki leaves the house, he pops six bottles into the microwave—carefully segregating two for Ian and Julian, who can't tolerate an iron-rich formula. These are the first of 42 bottles the sextuplets will consume over 24 hours. Once the formula is warm, Keith settles into a big chair with a baby on either arm and begins the first of three dual feeding sessions. As the first pair takes its bottles, Keith hopes fervently that the others will wait their turn quietly. "When one starts crying, it's not long before the cry is taken up by another member of the tribe," he says. "It's not unusual to have them all crying at the same time."

Alter the morning feeding the babies are ready for their baths, which Keith gives them consecutively in the kitchen sink. By 11 a.m., the sextuple are freshly diapered, dressed and ready for their mid-morning nap. That hour-long respite gives Keith a chance to do one of the three loads of laundry he does every day. (When he skips a daily wash, he pays a steep price: The next day he finds himself folding baby clothes for nearly two hours.)

Afternoons involve two or three more feedings and often dusting, vacuuming and washing dishes as well. "What's not to like?" asks Keith good-naturedly. "I'll get to watch them grow. I'll hear them say their first words—which will probably be 'Mommy.' "

Ironically, Becki and Keith once feared they would be childless. They met in November 1985 as coworkers at a Wendy's fast-food restaurant in Bloomington, Ind. Keith had temporarily dropped out of Indiana University, where he was studying mathematics, to earn money, and Becki was preparing to apply to nursing school. The two started dating in January; by Valentine's Day, 1986, they knew they would be married. "We waited another year and a half to make sure it wasn't impulsive," says Becki. The Dilleys had always known they wanted a family. A year later, when Becki still wasn't pregnant, she consulted her gynecologist, who informed them that their chances of conceiving were less than 20 percent. Becki was not ovulating, and Keith learned from a urologist that his sperm count was low. Devastated, they began to think about adoption. "At one point we even found a child, but the costs would have come to $20,000," says Becki. "We decided we couldn't afford it."

Instead, the Dilleys decided to try fertility treatments. Becki look the drug Clomid for six months. When that proved ineffective, she switched to Pergonal, which was prescribed by Indianapolis fertility expert Dr. David McLaughlin. Becki's first injection in October 1992 was followed by a shot of human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) to release eggs from her ovaries. Last Thanksgiving Day the Dilleys learned that Becki was pregnant.

About a month later, Dr. McLaughlin informed the Dilleys that five separate embryonic sacs had appeared on Becki's ultrasound. She was delighted. Keith, then working as a manager at Burger King, was shocked. "I walked around the house muttering, 'Five weddings, five proms, auto insurance for the boys when they hit 15½,' " he says.

Now, Becki faced the difficult and medically risky challenge of carrying the babies at least 28 weeks, the minimum time recommended by their neonatologist, Dr. Betty Lou Walsman.

Nine weeks into the pregnancy, Becki underwent a procedure called an intra-abdominal cerclage, in which a suture was threaded under her bladder and behind her uterus, then pulled light to prevent her from dilating prematurely. "This kept the babies inside long enough to become viable," says Becki's obstetrician, Dr. Lynda Smirz.

In her 25th week, Becki went into premature labor and was taken to Women's Hospital in Indianapolis, where she was put on magnesium sulfate to control contractions. But that drug and the steroids she was taking to help the fetuses' lungs develop contributed to an enormous weight gain—as much as 30 pounds in one 10-day period and 125 pounds by the 29th week. Becki had become too large to turn around in the shower stall; she would enter the stall face forward, then back out, turn around and back in. Despite her size, "there wasn't a lot of room for the babies to shift in my abdomen," says Becki, who remained in the hospital until she gave birth. "Toward the end I had to lie on my back with my feet in the air. I felt like a cow."

On May 25, 30 weeks and six days into her pregnancy, Becki was brushing her teeth when she lost control of the muscles on the right side of her face. Fearing that Becki had suffered a minor stroke, Dr. Smirz rushed to the hospital, where she was relieved to find that Becki had Bell's palsy, a condition not uncommon in pregnant women. Still, Smirz knew the time had come. "I couldn't see pushing Becki's body any more," she says.

Smirz scheduled a deliverd by cesarean section for 5 p.m. that day, with a team of 30 doctors and nurses standing by. Each baby was assigned a neonatologist or pediatrician, a nurse and a respiratory therapist who wore gowns marked Baby A, Baby B, Baby C, Baby D and Baby E. Five baby charts were stamped and ready to go. Five warmers and five ventilators sat ready. Becki was given an epidural so that she could watch the births.

At 5:28 p.m., Smirz delivered Baby A, Brenna Rose. "Before she came out, you could hear her crying," says Keith. "Becki and I looked at each other. It was the neatest feeling."

It took only two minutes for Smirz to deliver babies B, C, D and E—Julian, Quinn, Claire and Ian. Relieved that the deliveries had gone so smoothly, Smirz began to wind up the procedure. "I reached my hand inside Becki to peel the placenta off, and I felt a bag," she says. "I thought, 'Uh-oh, I counted wrong.' " Smirz looked over at the fifth ventilator. It was occupied. She turned to McLaughlin. "Dave," she said, "I think we have a sixth baby."

"Come on, Lynda," he snapped. "Quit joking around."

Smirz reached in and felt a foot. It kicked her. At that point, she pulled out a sixth baby, a boy, who smiled and reached out his arms. Pandemonium erupted in the delivery room. "There are six! There are six!" someone screamed.

"Is there a seventh?" muttered a dazed Keith.

Smirz held up the history-making number six, to be named Adrian, for Becki to see. Keith stumbled out of the delivery room to tell family and friends. Unable to speak, he held up six fingers.

Though nine weeks premature, the Dilley sextuplets—from the smallest, Quinn (2 lbs., 2 ozs.), to the biggest, Adrian and Julian (2 lbs., 13 ozs.)—were remarkably healthy. By early August, five of them had left the hospital. Julian, who had suffered respiratory problems and a hernia that needed repair, remained until Aug. 21.

Because their two-bedroom house was too small, the Dilleys moved in with Becki's parents, Loren and Doris Stauffer, who live in Geneva, Ind., 65 miles northeast of Indianapolis. Four months later, they realized the arrangement wasn't going to work. "I liked the family support, but as parents I felt we should call 100 percent of the shots and learn from our own mistakes," says Becki.

So on Sept. 13, the Dilleys moved in with Keith's father, a heating and air-conditioning technician who lives in a three-bedroom house. (Keith's mother had died several months earlier.) By spring they hope to be in their own place, which they were offered at a reduced price by a local builder. Others in the Bloomington area also rallied to help the Dilleys. A radio station conducted a diaper drive that brought in a free nine-month supply, some 10,000 diapers. Playpens, strollers and car seats were donated. A dentist, looking to the future, provided six tooth-brushes and a case of toothpaste. General Motors lent the Dilleys a van.

It is 6 o'clock on a recent evening, and Becki, who arrived home at 4:30 p.m., is just starling to help Keith with the evening routine. Together, they change six diapers, dress each baby in a sleeper, rock them to sleep in their swings and put them down in their cribs. Turning on the kids' music box, Becki closes the nursery door and gives a weary smile. "It's fun," she says. "I'd do it again."

SUSAN REED
GIOVANNA BREU in Greenfield

  • Contributors:
  • Giovanna Breu.