For the first six months after her premature birth, Ava Layne Young was virtually unresponsive. She wouldn't make eye contact with her mother and didn't react to sights or sounds.
"I was very worried about her," said her mother, Ashley Young. "She didn't have the swallow reflex. She was eating, but it was like force feeding, like she didn't know how to take the bottle."
Ava was so tiny, she didn't even make the growth charts. Doctors had no explanation for her lack of brain function and were just weeks away from classifying a genetic disorder when the little girl just "woke up."
From that point on, nothing could stop Ava. Today, she is a little beauty pageant contestant featured on TLC's "Toddler and Tiaras." Her story is part of tonight's episode, "Out of This World Pageant," which airs at 9 p.m.
"The best way to explain it is, she came alive," said Young, 27. "She didn't start to really live her life until later. And now, she is definitely making up for it. Everyone notices. She's an attention seeker."
Young, whose family lives in Lakeland, Ga., credits the tight-knit community and a prayer circle for Ava's miraculous recovery.
Today Ava is 4 and active in the child pageant circuit. She has won more than 100 pageant titles. Her parents have visited 11 states, carting their daughter to sing and dance in pageants and their 8-year-old son to baseball and football games.
"All of our time is spent with our kids -- I want them to have memories," said Young, who is studying to be an elementary school teacher. Her husband works in security for the military.
"She's a pretty good competitor now, and the judges can tell Ava loves it," said her mother.
As a baby, Ava was given MRIs and CT scans, which turned up nothing. Nor did blood tests. Doctors put the child through light tests, and her eyes would not dilate. Air tests revealed no response to sounds.
Eventually, a statewide interagency service called Babies Can't Wait was called in to help determine why the baby was unresponsive.
"As a parent, there are no words to say how you feel," said Young. "[A baby] is something you wait for your whole life – and now something is likely to go wrong. You wonder if it's genetic."
At six months old, Ava was about to be flown to Augusta for more tests, and her mother was mentally preparing herself for a lifetime of caring for a developmentally disabled child.
"It was very overwhelming," said Young. "I remember many nights sitting at home crying. If I had know how it would all turn out, I would have saved myself a lot of tears. You realize how priceless life is, knowing what you have to lose."
But then one day, Young was feeding the baby at her mother's home.
"I was holding her and my mom looked over my shoulder and said, 'I think she's looking at you,'" she said. "But I didn't want to get my hopes or her hopes up, so I said, 'Mama, please don't say that.'"
In a matter of days, Ava responded even further. "She began coming around and noticing and smiling," said Young. "I called the pediatrician and said, 'Something's going on here.'"
Dr. Ari Brown, an Austin, Texas, pediatrician and author of "Baby 411," said she is not familiar with the specifics of Ava's story, but premature babies can lag behind, then catch up to their full-term peers.
"It can be hard to know what the future holds," she said. "But I take an optimistic view – lots of kids do great."
Still, Brown recommends that the Youngs keep a watchful eye on Ava for learning disabilities. Early intervention therapies are also important for those children who are born prematurely.
"Sometimes we do see more subtle things and they can be important over time," she said. "She might not be totally out of the woods.... But I have seen kids who had kind of a rocky start and end up achieving many more milestones than we would have thought."
As for Ava's doctors, they couldn't explain her recovery. But her mother, a practicing Baptist, could.
"We prayed all the time, the whole community," she said. "Everybody knew our story and was upset. A prayer circle got together and continued to pray. That's what helped her through it."