Talk about being born with a silver spoon in your mouth.

When Marriott Corp. cuts the ribbon on its spanking new day-care center at its Bethesda headquarters today, three dozen children will eat lunches prepared by an executive chef, nap in softly lit suites and have their crib linens laundered every night.

It has taken a long time for many Washington area companies to get around to answering the call for child care. Marriott, with 4,000 employees at its headquarters, will become one of a handful of area companies to have its own day-care center, and the only one in Montgomery County.

Up until quite recently, many companies took a minimalist approach, making small gestures to help defray the costs of child care or providing referral services to help parents find good help.

But in the last several years, a growing number of Washington companies have progressed past the thinking-about-it stage and have begun to answer their workers' cry for child care. Surprisingly, it's the smaller companies and professional firms that have taken the lead, by pooling their resources to support a child-care center and offering backup or emergency care to cover parents when their normal baby-sitting arrangements break down. Developers also have fueled the trend by including day-care centers as an amenity for tenants.

"There is a whole lot more going on than five years ago," said Therese Keegan, director of the Fairfax County Employer Child Care Council. "Companies that were interested then have moved on and implemented things."

But so far, few large companies have jumped into building child-care centers as expensive and elaborate as Marriott's. In fact, an informal survey of about a dozen of the biggest companies in the area showed that many corporations were just getting their feet wet in the area of child-care benefits.

Giant Food Inc., for example, will start a pilot program for its administrative employees in January that will offer a child-care referral service. Mobil Oil Corp., a newcomer to Fairfax County, is using a resource and referral service to help workers find child care, and is investing $85,000 in that process.

Potomac Electric Power Co. also decided on a referral service that gives parents a list of providers to choose from at the recommendation of a special committee that studied the situation.

"The committee acknowledged that setting up day-care centers would be difficult and unworkable because we have so many physical locations throughout the metro area and employees have various shifts," said Pepco spokeswoman Nancy Moses.

Unlike huge manufacturing companies with hundreds of employees located at a single plant, most of Washington's largest companies are service- or retail-oriented, with many locations spread out across the region.

While these companies are making some progress, the expense and liabilities of opening their own day-car centers have held back many large companies. Child-care consultants say it takes about $200,000 to get a center going. Then there is the ongoing headache of staffing it and keeping it full.

What has happened is that employers, particularly smaller ones, have learned to share costs. The three-year-old Tysons Play and Learn Center, for example, serves a number of businesses in the area who reserve slots for their employees. Demand for child care -- particularly care for infants -- is so great that its capacity is being doubled to accommodate 164 children. That will take care of a 40-child waiting list and allow the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. to use the center when it moves its headquarters to Tysons Corner, said Cheri L. Sheridan, president of PKI Corporate Child Care, who developed the center and a half dozen others around the metropolitan area.

But the real interest from companies seems to be in backup or emergency care -- a less expensive option for employers and a godsend for parents whose babysitters get sick or fail to show up. Professional firms, in particular, are going the emergency child-care route.

For instance, a center backed by a group of law firms will open in about six weeks at 655 15th St. in the Metropolitan Square Building. Covington & Burling is the "anchor" tenant and six other law firms have counted themselves in.

Lipton Corporate Child Care, which is managing the Metropolitan Square project, has four other centers underway that will cater to the legal community, which has found that backup baby-sitting translates into billable hours.

Arnold & Porter, for instance, one of a handful of law firms that has its own emergency child care for employees, saved some $400,000 in its first year of operation, according to Maria Elwood, director of Arnold & Porter's center on New Hampshire Avenue.

The Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) last spring started offering working parents a safety net. With the thought in mind that it may someday open a full-time center, Fannie Mae is offering its 1,400 employees heavily subsidized emergency child care, as well as a referral service.

"We help people find a permanent system, but you also have to have a safety net so you don't have to panic if you get that phone call in the morning," said Patricia R. Singletary, vice president of human resources for Fannie Mae. On average, six children a day use the facility.

It's too early to tell what the slowdown in the Washington economy will do to the child-care plans of companies and commercial developers, consultants say. On the one hand, developers need to sell space more than ever and a child-care center could be an attractive plus to tenants. But companies could simply put their plans on hold in an effort to conserve cash.

"Child care may be a nice thing to do," said Sheridan. "But in this economy, where every dollar counts, they have to justify writing that check. You have to make sure you don't have a white elephant on your hands."

Even Marriott's flagship center won't be a moneymaker. "I don't ever see us making money on this facility," said Clifford Ehrlich, Marriott's senior vice president of human resources.

What it will be is a prototype for a service they eventually hope to sell to the 3,000 hospitals, universities and businesses that they already cook and clean for. Through a 25 percent interest in Corporate Child Care Inc. in Nashville, Marriott expects to capitalize on companies' need for child care, particularly for infants.

"You are about to see an explosion if our level of activity is any indication," said Marguerite Sallee, president and chief executive officer of Corporate Child Care.

Help couldn't come soon enough for Laura Edwards, a mother of two who is a regional accountant for Marriott's Residence Inn. The days are over that she has to pay for a $65 cab ride home in the snow to pick up a sick daughter at day care in Springfield.

Said Edwards, whose 2-year-old Charlotte is now in the same building with her: "It's really been a relief."