'Three of Hearts' cake smash celebrates the birthdays of three little girls who beat the odds

This story originally appeared on Babble and is reprinted with permission.

A 1st birthday is a big event; one worthy of a grand celebration. But for three adorable baby girls who just turned 1, their birthday became a chance to commemorate the many challenges they've overcome, as well as the light that they each bring into the world.

Harper, Catherine, and Mae all share a common bond: They were each born with Down syndrome just three days of each other, and all underwent major heart surgeries at Boston Children's Hospital to repair congenital heart defects. The three girls and their mothers met for the very first time at a breastfeeding photoshoot with Julia's Way, a Massachusetts nonprofit that's focused on reimagining life with Down syndrome, as well as promoting advocacy and education for new parents in the DS community. They were celebrating becoming "breastfeeding champions" despite the many challenges associated with breastfeeding an infant with Down syndrome.

And now, they're back together again to celebrate again, with a 1st-birthday photo shoot dubbed "The Three of Hearts Cake Smash" by photographer Nicole Starr.

Image source: Nicole Starr Photography

"When we realized the connection between these three heart warriors, we knew that we had to celebrate in a big way!" Starr tells Babble. "I am a baby photographer and I specialize in cake smash sessions, so of course I was excited to plan a very special cake smash for this group."

In a blog on Starr's photography site, the mothers share some of the challenges their daughters have overcome: "Mae has had quite a first year," her mother shares. "Three separate heart surgeries including a pacemaker all before 7 months of age. She was inpatient for 75 days before coming home for the first time!"

But it's been clear from the start that Mae's been a little fighter. "They call her 'Mighty Mae,'" her mom shares.

Image source: Nicole Starr Photography

Cate was also in the hospital for her first 80 days of life, enduring a total of three major surgeries (including open heart surgery) before she could go home. Her mother says that she has "come so far from a 5 lbs. 3 oz. sick little heart baby." Today, she's a hearty 17-lbs. - a "happy little girl who sits up, babbles, and plays with toys."

Image source: Nicole Starr Photography

Harper's journey wasn't easy, either.

"This session is so important to me because prior to her diagnosis we were expecting a 'normal' healthy baby," her mother shares. "The news of her Trisomy 21 devastated us, but her heart defect caused us to mourn her. We anticipated the worst and grieved her loss prematurely. I want others to know that neither diagnosis is not necessarily a terminal one and that she has brought so much love, joy, patience and understanding into our lives. She has changed every member of our family for the better."

Anyone who is fortunate to know someone with Down syndrome can attest to the truth of her words. They truly are angels among us.

Starr says that when they put the girls in front of their birthday cakes, "it was just like any other cake smash with the babies exploring their sugary treat for the first time." And while Starr notes that Down syndrome and congenital heart defects (CHD) are just "tiny little words" that happened to bring Cate, Harper, and Mae together, they certainly don't define these girls - or their unique personalities.

Image source: Nicole Starr Photography

"My favorite part of the photo shoot was being able to celebrate these three babies," says Ella Cullen, founder of Julia's Way. "We see them today as happy, healthy, and thriving little girls, but we can't see the back story of the fear and concern that their parents went through. Unfortunately, not all babies who go through open heart surgery make it to their first birthdays and that is always in the back of your mind as a parent. The relief that we all felt that these girls made it and have now been out of the hospital for some months, was palpable."

Image source: Nicole Starr Photography

"These girls and their moms are ambassadors for all of the other children out there right now struggling through what they have been through," adds Cullen. "We want them to know they are not alone."

Image source: Nicole Starr Photography

The photo shoot was a beautiful way to celebrate the lives of these three precious girls, while hopefully helping others on their journey to see what is possible.

Image source: Nicole Starr Photography

When asked how she feels about the response to the photo shoot, Starr says: "We are thrilled about the response that this photoshoot is getting in the online community, and we're so happy that people are connecting with the images, sharing their own stories, and reaching out to Julia's Way for guidance and support as they begin their own journey."

She also mentions that the mothers plan on staying in touch, adding, "who knows ... maybe we'll do a follow up session with the girls for their second birthday!"

It's a brilliant idea, and a great way for these girls to keep in touch and continue to share their joy and light with each other and the world.

Image source: Nicole Starr Photography

To see more heartwarming photos from Nicole Starr, you can follow her on Facebook or Instagram.

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