Teresa Lear, the mother of 21-month-old twins, said she has found it a little easier to buy nursing products this time around than she did after her three older children were born. The Alexandria woman, though, emphasizes the words "a little."

Despite growing public awareness of the value of breast-feeding, she said she typically still has to order nursing items from a catalogue or shop at specialty stores such as the Columbia Hospital for Women's breast-feeding center in Northwest Washington, where she volunteers.

Lear, 37, whose older children are 4, 7 and 9, said those options also typically are expensive and not that convenient.

All that makes her exactly the shopper Wal-Mart is setting its sights on. The nation's largest retailer confirmed earlier this month that it is developing a section dedicated to products for nursing moms. The move is considered the first effort by a major retailer to sell to the breast-feeding mother market, and suggests that a consumer group once kept under wraps is gaining mainstream visibility.

"I think it'd be great if Wal-Mart does it," Lear said. "At Wal-Mart, you'd have longer hours to shop and convenience and usually you get discount prices."

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. spokeswoman Jessica Moser said increased customer demand was one factor in the company's decision. But she added: "The main reason we're offering the products is because we think it's the right thing to do. We have worked with many professionals in the field and have become very aware that this is a healthy choice for women and babies."

The company is shipping 33 breast-feeding products and 11 books to 950 of its 2,485 stores across the country. The items--such as creams, pads and nursing nightwear--will be available by early February. A special four-foot section in infant departments will be labeled the Lansinoh Breast-Feeding Collection, with banners marking the spot.

Resheda Hagen, founder of Lansinoh Laboratories Inc. in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and developer of a lanolin-based skin cream that makes breast-feeding less painful, sees Wal-Mart's decision to sell her collection as a major marketing breakthrough. While maternity and baby stores routinely carry nursing items, Hagen said it took five years to persuade Wal-Mart to offer her signature Lansinoh cream. After seeing the success of that product and the size of the potential market, Wal-Mart came to Hagen to put together the section, she said.

Wal-Mart's decision to set up a "destination point" for nursing mothers, Hagen said, "reflects that they've done their homework and they understand there's a real opportunity here"--not only to sell products but also to educate consumers. Lansinoh, meanwhile, plans to move its headquarters to the Washington area in April, Hagen added.

Nursing was standard practice in America until homemade breast-milk substitutes--generally Karo syrup, water and condensed milk--came into vogue in the freewheeling 1920s, according to the La Leche League International in Chicago. When companies began marketing baby formula in the 1940s and 1950s, more women gravitated toward the promise of technology, said La Leche spokeswoman Mary Lofton.

Surveys by the Ross Products division of Abbott Laboratories show ups and downs since 1951 in the numbers of women who breast-fed while hospitalized. After dropping steadily through the '50s and '60s, the all-time low came in 1971, when the survey showed only 24.7 percent breast-fed in the hospital.

Now the number is at its highest ever: The 1998 Ross survey showed that 64.3 percent of mothers were initially nursing.

Lofton credits a steady increase since 1990 to recent medical studies documenting nursing's "enormous benefits" and to 1997 guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending that mothers nurse for at least a year and as long after that as is mutually desired.

The big challenge in meeting those recommendations, according to the league and Hagen, is keeping mothers nursing after they leave the hospital. The drop-off is about 50 percent after the first two weeks. Hagen said Wal-Mart's decision offers an opportunity not only to reach an audience that might not be as likely to continue to nurse but also to provide products that might ease the experience. She said William Sears, a California pediatrician sometimes called the new Dr. Spock, plans to dedicate a new book to the Wal-Mart collection.

However, lactation consultants in the Columbia Hospital for Women's breast-feeding center and nursing mothers interviewed there were not totally enthusiastic about Wal-Mart's plan.

While consultant Julie Edgerton said the move would broaden exposure for nursing, she warned that offering equipment without personalized advice on how to use it or how items should be fitted "could be dangerous." Citing the high drop-off rate after two weeks, Edgerton said, "The mothers just don't hang in there because they don't get the backup help they need."

Eveline Shum, a new nursing mother from Capitol Hill, agreed that Columbia's program of equipment plus consultants offers the best approach. But she called Wal-Mart's move "a very positive sign" because it would show that breast-feeding has reached "populist America."

CAPTION: Teresa Lear of Alexandria, mother of five, said Wal-Mart's decision will make shopping easier and less expensive for nursing mothers. But 21-month-old twins Christina, left, and Cathleen are more interested in "Sesame Street."

BREAST-FEEDING RATES RISE

The rate of mothers who breast-feed has risen significantly over the past three decades; after dipping in the 1980s, it's now at its highest level in many years.

Percent of mothers who breast-feed:

In the hospital (after giving birth): 64.3%

Six months after giving birth: 28.6%

SOURCE: La Leche League International