FINDING THE RIGHT DAY CARE FOR A child can be a daunting challenge, and there are no certain answers or sure-fire formulas. But there are some helpful guidelines to follow and key questions to ask, starting with the most basic one: Is the center or other day-care group licensed?

If the answer is yes, parents can be assured that some minimum standards have been met: The primary caretakers are at least 18 years old. The staff has passed medical and criminal background checks. The house or center has met fire and safety codes.

Most importantly, though, licensing standards set limits for the number of children and adults in a group. Early childhood development experts at the National Association for the Education of Young Children suggest that one adult care for no more than three or four infants. Preschool groups should include one adult for every seven to 10 children, according to NAEYC. Most area jurisdictions' licensing requirements fall within those guidelines.

In the past few years, early childhood professionals have sought to improve child-care standards further by promoting accreditation of centers and those who bring children into their homes for care.

Accredited centers and providers have spent time and money meeting the high standards of the NAEYC, which involve such things as first aid and CPR training and appropriate teaching and discipline techniques. Accredited centers have also demonstrated that their staff interacts with children in a way that promotes the children's individuality and self-esteem. Child-care advocates hope that asking about accreditation will become a standard inquiry among parents seeking child care.

In the meantime, child-care advocates and experts recommend that parents take their time and investigate potential child-care arrangements well beyond the licensing requirements. Among their suggestions:

Visit a variety of centers or homes and check references from parents who have used them, in person if possible. Ask to review written policies and be wary of programs that do not have open visitation policies or discourage parents' unannounced visits. Consider if the program is adequately supplied with books, puzzles and toys and is clean and hazard-free. What is the daily routine? Is there space for physical activities? Do the children get plenty of time for free play?

Where infants are involved, examine how much time babies spend in cribs or infant seats, compared with being cuddled, played with and allowed to explore their surroundings.

Beyond those questions and concerns, experts say, parents should be aware that some factors that determine the quality of child care are much more complicated or subtle:

How much do the child-care providers earn? With average annual salaries around $10,000, child-care workers have a high turnover rate. Their salary and benefits can determine whether your child will be in a stable setting where children and adults bond or in a place with a revolving-door staff that confuses and unsettles young children.

Are the so-called "academic" pro- grams appropriate? They often impress parents, but many of these programs contradict the recommenda- tions of the nation's leading experts in early childhood development. Children learn best through play and simple hands-on activities, like cooking. "I would not like to see programs where children are doing a lot with work sheets," says NAEYC spokesman Barbara Willer. "Some parents put undue emphasis on learning letters, colors."

"Look for lots of artwork on the walls," suggests Madeline Fried, a child-care consultant. Twenty identical pumpkins on a bulletin board involve the use of pre-prepared crafts that do not encourage children's creativity or individuality, she says.

Do children already enrolled look happy, comfortable and relaxed? Parents may find that the best indicators of good care are the faces of the children themselves. Visit a center or day-care home when children are present -- not during nap time, but when you can see them interacting with the staff.

In the end, parents will and should depend on their own best judgment, which experts believe is a factor too many people underestimate.

"Parents know a heck of a lot more about day care than we think," says Fried, pointing out that parents recognize a good thing when they see it: "It brings a smile to your face. It's nurturing. And you can say, 'My kids will have a good time here.' " CHILD-CARE INFORMATION, REFERRALS

Alexandria, Office of Early Childhood Development, 838-0750.

Anne Arundel County, Office of Child-Care Licensing and Regulation, (301) 974-5090.

Arlington, Child-Care Office, 358-5101.

District of Columbia, Child-Care Services Division, Department of Human Services, 727-0284.

Fairfax County, Office for Children, 359-5860.

Howard County, Department of Social Services, (301) 461-0289.

Loudoun County, Department of Social Services, (703) 777-0360.

Montgomery County, Child-Care Connection, 217-1773.

Prince George's County, Office of Child-Care Licensing and Regulation, 808-1685.

Prince William County, CON- CEPTS in Child Care, (703) 335-7613. OTHER RESOURCES

"Locating Child Care in the Metropolitan Area," a brochure published by the Metropolitan Child-Care Network, part of the Council of Governments. Available at area supermarkets and public libraries.

"Finding the Best Care for Your Infant or Toddler," a joint publication of the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs and the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Call 232-8770 or 800-424-2460.

The Metropolitan Mothers at Work Book: A Complete Guide to Child Care in Metropolitan Washington, Maryland and Virginia, by N. Susan Satterfield and L. Kim Smith. Available at area bookstores.