The District of Columbia will allow only five (unrelated) children in a family day-care home. The larger figures given in Tuesday's Style Plus story apply only to day-care centers .

Mothers with tots needing day care choose -- 2-to-1 -- a family situation over a center, says a recent study.

As well as they should, say the experts.

While most salaried women dream of hiring a live-in Mary Poppins, and some parents say they feel safer with a licensed day-care center built on an "educational program," many early childhood specialists advocate the use of family day-care homes for very young children.

A study by Health and Human Services' Office of Children, Youth and Families shows that 90 percent of such day-care homes take in six or fewer children; 50 percent take in three or less.

Yet the stereotype -- with images of Looney Tunes and Kool-Aid -- of the at-home day-care provider is less than positive.

Bonnie Arnold, family day-care expert of Fairfax County's Office for Children, draws a very different profile. Her surveys of licensed providers in Fairfax show that "most have at least two years of college -- several have their masters, in fact. Most are home raising their own children, and taking in extra kids to make ends meet.

"And, if they get through the first 6 months of this demanding job, they tend to stick with it for years."

Across the country, roughly a quarter of the 3- to 6-year-olds are being cared for by women earning subminimum wages, with no sick leave, no insurance, no vacations, no benefits at all.

Why do we, as a nation, care so little for those who care for our children?

Sally Volkert, who heads Rosemont Center's family day-care satellite program -- a bilingual service in the District that tries to provide young children with a home-like atmosphere -- offers this explanation:

"These women suffer from low status bordering on invisibility. They are isolated from each other, and often feel that, because they stay home, they've been left behind. Yet they are business professionals offering a necessary service, and deserve community support."

"I don't know what I'd do if I got sick," says JoAnn Keister, a provider who, with her mother's help, cares for eight children daily. "I'm the sole supporter for this family -- if I can't work, we're in big trouble."

Keister is outgoing president of the Montgomery County Family Day Care Association, an organization of licensed providers. Designed to ease the isolation of this labor force, the organization sponsors workshops on early childhood education.

It also should, in Keister's opinion, act as the regulatory agency governing the providers.

"Montgomery County has about 700 licensed homes, and probably three times that many unlicensed providers," she says. "The county doesn't have time to check up on those who are registered, let alone the unregistered. So those of us who have bothered to follow the rules are bearing the brunt of those rules."

Many providers agree with this; one estimate holds that close to 80 percent of all day-care homes are unlicensed.

One advantage to registering for a license in many counties is that you can hook onto an organization like Keister's, which holds the potential for political clout.

Keister would like to see her group organize against what she perceives as "arbitrary" rules that restrict her to keeping four children while unlicensed caretakers can take on "as many as they feel like taking. I think I could handle five kids, and I think I should be given the chance to try it."

She could get the change legally if she lived in Fairfax County, which requires a license only for caretakers with six or more children.

The District requires a license for "everyone with another's child -- even the woman taking care of her grandchild," says spokesperson Teresa Roberts. A D.C. license, however, allows the care of 10 4- to 5-year-olds, or 15 children aged 6 or more.

If these rules confuse you, consider McGruder Sweeting, an Anacostia mother who started a 24-hour ("you heard that right") day-care center in her basement three years ago, after learning that no late-night child care exists in her area.

By the time the day-care and occupancy licensing people were through, she had been forced to put three bathrooms in her basement and create two means of egress on each floor of her three-story home. "I was going to feed these kids, until they told me I needed $10,000 worth of work done in my kitchen to cook the food I'm cooking right now."

Despite the bureaucratic red tape, Sweeting points to parents as the chief complication of her job. "I don't have any problems with the kids -- the kids are great."

Adds Keister: "That's the big secret to day care -- kids are always better behaved when they're not with their parents."

More than one interviewee cited the classic case of the parent who "stuffs the sick kid with aspirin and brings him here."

"I know," said Sweeting, "these parents can't afford to take time off from work, but we just can't accept the children when they're sick."

Like when they have a cold?

Like the chicken pox -- we had one mother bring a contagious child. Fortunately, we have an isolation room for cases like that. And now, we take the kids' temperatures as soon as they arrive.

"I've been very surprised," she says, "by how little parents know about raising children -- I've had to teach many of them how to be parents."

Like how to deal with discipline problems, or handle sibling rivalry?

"Like how to change a diaper, or clean out a bottle before you refill it."

Sweeting, who describes herself as "tough as a marshmellow," also grapples with another typical business problem: collecting. "I charge $45 per week for up to 60 hours of care -- less than a dollar per hour -- but still the parents protest."

Sweeting's fee is average, licensing agencies say, and collection problems occur throughout the $25-$60 per week range.

If the pay is bad, the hours are worse. Keister's hours -- 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. -- are typical; most providers work 10 to 14 hours daily. A few like Sweeting, work around the clock.

So it is not surprising that one of the major beefs is the late parent. Says an Arlington woman in the business for 30 years:

"I don't mind if they're a few minutes late, and I'm understanding if they miss their bus every one in awhile. But if Mrs. Jones or Mrs. Smith calls me and says she has to work late, and I find out she's really at the grocery store, it burns me up.

"And you know what? That woman will have the nerve to look at me and say, 'I knew you weren't going anywhere.'"

Tales of such insensitivity abound in the day-care underground, and providers bristle at the low status society accords them.

"I have an educational specialist with a masters in early childhood education," says Sweeting, "and they call her a 'baby-sitter.'"

"We don't use the term 'baby-sitter,' says Arnold. "These are professional women -- they're not in this job to buy lipsticks and bangle bracelets."

One 30-year veteran has learned to defend her status with hard-nosed tactics:

"A woman showed up at my door in a $120 dress, holding a sopping-wet, dirty baby. She said she was late for an important meeting and was sure I wouldn't mind changing the baby.

"I told her, 'When you pick up your child at night, I give him to you clean and dry, and I expect you to treat me the same way.' Then I closed the door.

"Do you know, that the woman was back in two hours, crying and begging me to forgive her. And her baby was dry!"

Few caretakers use such tactics, and most, like Fairfax provider Alyce Chessnoe, prefer to develop "family relations" with their parent customers. "We socialize, go on picnics and even vacations together. I think of these parents as good friends, part of my family."

To qualify for such status, Chessnoe and others are apt to ask one word -- overused as it may be -- "respect." And then they add:

"Once you've made the decision to use child care, be positive about it."

"Don't show up too early, or pick up your child too late. And let us know if your plans change."

Bring all necessary supplies. "Nine times out of 10, the parent forgets the child's lunch." Other necessities: a full change of clothing, and any special foods or formulas.

Describe changes at home. "If Granny is sick, or the child receives a new record player, let us know. These things can affect behavior dramatically, without our knowing what happened."

Pay on time, and pay for holidays. "If you have a day off, I should have a day off," is the rule most providers use. If possible, coordinate your vacation with hers -- many providers never take vacations.

Consider pooling with other parents to purchase an insurance policy for your caretaker. Cindy Johnson, president of the Virginia Family Day Care Association, has the details on an inexpensive policy used by her members. Tel.:971-9208.

"If parents have access to scrap paper, telephone wire; packing material or any giveaways, bring them along. Providers do many art projects, and all these things help."

"If the child speaks another language, it helps me if the parents write down a few of his words," says the provider of a multi-national group. "I'd also like to know the name of someone I can call for translations, and a few recipes so I can make some of the child's homestyle foods."

"If the parents will just stop and think about how their actions affect the provider," says Arnold, "most problems can be avoided. Of course, the same goes for the provider. We just need better communications."