April 18, 2012 04:00 PM

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Dylan River Nichols arrived a little bit early, but parents Joe and Heather Nichols are counting their blessings that the day they have long prayed for finally arrived.

The healthy baby girl was delivered at 1:22 p.m. on Tuesday, April 17, weighing in at 7 lbs., 5 oz. and is 21¼ inches long, the couple confirm to PEOPLE exclusively.

“Joe and I have prayed for this day for such a long time,” a tired but blissful Heather tells PEOPLE. “We are truly blessed.”

Last year, the country crooner told PEOPLE that when he wasn’t touring, “Heather and I have been working on having a baby — that’s been the fun part.”

But it hasn’t been easy. The couple, who have known each other since they were 19, married in Savannah, Ga. on Sept. 9, 2007; A month later the singer, who had previously struggled with substance abuse, entered rehab.

He has been clean and sober since, and the couple, both 35, has been public about the challenges they faced as they tried to grow their family. Heather suffered a miscarriage in January 2008 before embarking on a lengthy series of fertility treatments.

This past February, they shared the happy news that they were expecting a special delivery this spring. “After trying to have a baby for so long, we are thrilled to announce that I am pregnant,” Heather said at the time.

The name was decided upon well before birth, and as Heather’s mother Sharon Singleton tells PEOPLE, it holds special meaning for the couple.

“Dylan was inspired by Heather’s childhood friend Dylan who passed away after college,” Singleton explains. “She says she has felt his presence as her guardian angel since. River comes from the song Joe sang to Heather on their wedding day, “That Would Be Her,” which Heather listened to over and over during her fertility treatments.”

After holding his little girl in his arms for the first time, Nichols tells PEOPLE, “This is one of the most humbling and remarkable experiences. Heather is amazing, and I am just so thankful our little girl is here. She is truly a miracle.”

Courtesy Joe Nichols

— Kay West

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