When Roger and Barbara Chamness began dating in the mid-1980s, she had two children from a previous marriage and didn't intend to have any more. In fact, she had had surgery 10 years earlier to prevent another pregnancy.

But on Christmas Eve 1988, Roger popped the "big question" and changed their lives in ways they never dreamed of.

At their Gainesville home, Roger, 29, and Barbara, 35, who were married in March 1989, celebrated this Christmas Eve with their 5-month-old "test tube" triplets: Aaron, Alicia and Austin.

All three babies are fair-but-few-haired, blue-green-eyed, quick-grinning and healthy. Aaron, whom his parents affectionately call "Bruiser," weighs just over 17 pounds, and Alicia and Austin weigh 15 pounds each.

The Chamnesses call their triplets a "miracle."

The chances of in vitro fertilization producing a healthy baby from start of process to finish are only 9 to 11 percent, said Shirley Jones, director of nursing and clinical services at the Genetics & IVF Institute in Fairfax County, where Barbara Chamness had her in vitro fertilization.

Of the institute's approximately 420 successful pregnancies in six years, only one other produced triplets. Those triplets, now about a year old, also live in Virginia.

But the number of multiple births from in vitro fertilization is increasing because of advanced medical technology, according to the American Fertility Society in Birmingham. The number of "test tube" triplets born in the United States last year almost doubled over the 55 born the previous year, a Fertility Society official said.

Although now a master juggler of the three babies, Roger Chamness still seems to have moments of shock over the triplets.

"It's inconceivable -- three babies inside one person," said Chamness, who works in IBM's manufacturing division in Manassas.

One evening several weeks ago, three baby strollers, a baby swing and a small crib crowded the Chamnesses' living room. But they got only momentary use. The babies seem to delight more in being rotated from one parent's arm to the other parent's arm. In a space of two hours, only Alicia cried. She had a soggy bottom.

"It's a whole new ball game," said Barbara Chamness, who has given up her job as a sales manager at Montgomery Ward in Manassas. "It's been so many years. Trying to put them to sleep at night is three different chores."

But "we wouldn't trade it. Not at all," said Barbara Chamness, whose two children, Jonathan Hall and Christina Hall, are now 13 and 17, respectively. "They're too precious to us, I guess, because we went through the IVF cycle and the pregnancy."

The Chamnesses first considered having Barbara's tubal ligation reversed, but the process seemed painful and the chances of success slight. They consulted a doctor who referred them to the Genetics & IVF Institute, which was the first in the United States to conduct a non-surgical retrieval of eggs for in vitro fertilization.

Barbara Chamness began the process just before Thanksgiving last year. She was given an ovulation-enhancing drug called Pergonal, which increased her chances of producing more than one mature egg, Jones said.

Twenty eggs were retrieved by a tiny needle the day before Thanksgiving last year, transferred to a petri dish, placed in an incubator and inseminated with Roger Chamness's sperm. The process produced 10 fertilized eggs, six of which the Chamnesses gave to the institute to freeze for future use by people who are infertile. The other four were injected into her uterus the day after Thanksgiving.

"We just never comprehended that it could be more than one," Roger Chamness said. "One nurse said they {the fertilized eggs} must have stuck like glue when we put them back" inside his wife.

On Dec. 21 they found out they were going to have triplets.

"We were in a six-by-nine {foot} room with the table and machines and all the doctors and nurses, and they were looking at the {sonogram} saying, 'Look, look,' " Roger Chamness said. "There were three heartbeats."

But realizing the complications that could have evolved, the Chamnesses held their hopes close. "There are so many drugs involved, and the odds are so low," he said. Because of a fear of needles, it took him "the whole first quarter of Monday Night Football" to give his wife her first daily progesterone shot, he said.

"It really didn't start to sink in until they started to move around," he said. Then carrying the three fetuses "was like warfare," Barbara Chamness added.

She spent the last 7 1/2 weeks of her pregnancy in the hospital in case she went into premature labor, which she did. On July 12, five weeks earlier than expected, Barbara Chamness had a Caesarean section, giving birth to Austin, Alicia and Aaron. They all were 30 seconds apart and weighed between four and six pounds.

At home, where the young Chamnesses' room is wall-to-wall cribs, mom and dad are practicing a lot of damage control.

"They'll start talking, and then they'll start talking louder and louder," Roger Chamness said, "until one starts crying, and then they'll start sympathy crying."

But, said Jonathan Hall, about living with his younger siblings, whom he obviously adores: "It's all right."