It is never an easy decision: If you are a working parent in Montgomery or Prince George's County, do you hire a housekeeper so that your child can remain in the warmth and comfort of home? Or, do you choose a family day care home, day care center, or extended day program where your child can enjoy new friends and experiences?

For some families, the decision goes even deeper: A mother may work or not work depending on the quality of child care available.

As of March 1978 nearly 44 percent of American women with children under the age of 6 were working and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the number was climbing steadily.

The cost to working parents is high: In Montgomery or Prince George's County, working mothers can expect fees of between $37 and $45 per week for a day care center; $30 to $35 for family day care; between $100 and $140 a week for a full-time houskeeper.

Day care centers are facilties that care for groups of children from the age of 2 up; extended day programs offer care before and after school to school age children; family day care homes generally provide care to small groups of children in private homes.

While day care centers enjoyed a period of accelerated growth in the 1960s, the boom tapered off in the 1970s. Within the last year, however, Montgomery County licensed 21 new day care programs and Prince George's County licensed nine.

"You set up a day care center for 25 children and there are 100 mothers who could use it. The major problem is that we do not have enough centers. There's greater need than is being filled," said Roz Garfinkel of the Montgomery County Office of Family Resources.

Many day care centers have expanded service by developing extended day programs at public schools. The number of such programs in Montgomery County, for instance, has grown from 16 in 1975-1976 to 65 in 1978-1979.

"Two years ago we started with one extended day program for 16 children at Woodacres Elementary School and this year we will have two programs there for 40 children and are starting another program at Radnor Elementary for 16 to 20 children," said Barbara Belzer of River Road Day Care Center. "There has been a great demand for his kind of service. Parents seems to want it."

Trends and Changes

As the clientele and need for day care grows, the approach to staffing, programming and environments is changing.

"Many people used to look at day care as a way of getting women off welfare rolls; they didn't consider it a serious educational program for children, but that's changing now," said Diane Trister Dodge, a day care specialist with Creative Learning, a child care and teacher training consulting firm. "If the new federal standards being proposed by the department of Health, Education and Welfare are accepted, there will be even more emphasis On quality programming."

Dodge said that, along with an educational component, day care operators are beginning to provide programs that recognize individuals and cultural differences.

"Their programs reflect that we are a multicultural country. Puzzles, decor, songs and activities reflect the cultural backgrounds of the children," she said.

Some suburban Maryland day care centers have developed enriching educational programs with activities that go beyond state licensing requirements for developmental programming.

The daily program at these centers in much like that of an educationally oriented nursery school. There are small and large group activities, and open play areas, supervised by teachers, where children can play with sand, paint picuture, build with blocks, feed animals, care for garden plants, play at the playground, or work with wood and carpentry tools.

Such a program, say specialists, is a far cry from the depressing type of center where children watch television and color in coloring books most of the day.

Although state licensing requires "activities which foster development," day care teachers need only a high school degree and a 64-hour child development course. It is difficult, day care specialists say, for a person with a limited educational background to develop an enriching program.

"We had hoped to have a Good Housekeeping seal of approval type of system to reward those centers who were doing an oustanding job in their programming," a Health Department day care specialist said. "Right now, though, there is no way to estimate how many centers are doint it."

A Montgomery County specialist estimated that about 50 percent of the centers in that county had good developmental programs. "But," she added, "it's a judgmental thing. What strikes me as good program might not strike you as being a good one."

Centers are also beginning to lean toward a home-like rather than school-like atmosphere. Some centers provide soft areas such as couches, chairs and pillows where children can relax and intimate nooks or corners so that children can escape from the group atmosphere.

Another important trend is towards a family centered approach. Several centers now offer parent education seminars or courses hthat cover issues such as discipline, how to communicate with the day care center, reasonable expectations for young children.

"We sense a big push to involve parents in day care center activities," said Anne Segal, an early child care specialist and director of Clara Barton Day Care Center.

Segal, along with co-director Aimee Nover, established a prototype family center approach: Before children are accepted into the program, the day care teacher visits the child at his or her home. "The child should mee the teacher on his own turf," Segal said.

Then, the prents are asked to attend the first two days at the center with the child.

The transion away from parents into a social environment is very important. We want to encourage good, healthy separation," Segal said.

Parents are then asked to participate in any way they can in the program itself. Two fathers built an indoor gym for the center, one mother taught dance. Another mother was in charge of teacher substitute phoning.

"We also have seminars for parents and we discuss things like discipline. Once we had a child psychiatrist come and answer questions. Another time a gymnastics coach came with some very young children and demonstrated what could be done. It's amazing how many people will donate their time and how many of our parents are interested in these programs," Segal concluded.

Choosing a Child Care Facility

There is no perfect choice. There are tradeoffs in any type of care a parent chooses. A housekeeper, for instance, comes in and provides service whether a child is sick or well, but the child is usually isolated from other children and does not have an opportunity to socialize, an important factor for children between ages of 3 and 5.

There is plenty of socialization at a day care center or family day care home, but the parent has less control over the environmental and should the child become ill, the parent will have to find alternative care.

Whatever type of care you choose, specialists strongly advise you to visit a facility before sending your child there.

To operate in Maryland, a day care center must be licensed by the state Department of Health, which investigates the safety of the facility, the ratio of staff to children, and the background and training of personnel. Staff to children ratios are not as stringent as federal standards and the requirements for background and education of teachers and aides are considered minimal.

"The licensing requirements aren't all they could be," said one early childhood development specialist," but at least, we have requirements. Some states only have fire and safety standards."

Day care centers that agree to accept children eligible for federally subsidized day care must meet federal guidelines. The staff to children ratios are stricter under federal guidelines but there is a moratorium of staff-to-child ratios while HEW reevaluates and rewrites day care standards.

These new standards were originally supposed to be available last October, but the process of revamping is just getting underway. A paper presenting the thinking of HEW's Human Development Services workers on various day care regulation issues will be published in the Federal Register in the fall.

"We want the public to be very involved in the premilinary, developmental stages of these regulations," said Walter Empson, a member of an HDS team working on the regulations.

Regional hearings on the paper will be held in November and December, followed by proposed regulations which should be available in the spring. Final regulations, Empson predicted, will be available next fall.

"Centers must meet certain requirements to be licensed, but that's no guarantee of safe or good care. Parents should always visit a facility with their child before making a decision." said Dodge.

"Check on the orderlines of the room," she continued. "Do the puzzles have all their pisces? Is there a place for everything? Are the children running aroung the room in a wild way or are they busy at various activities? Are the teachers talking together or working with the children?"

For a list of day care centers, tended day programs and family day care providers in Montgomery County, call Family Resources, 279-1512; the licensing department of th e Department of Health, 488-4468, and Four C's, 942-9084. The resources also publish booklets on how to choose a day care facility.

In Prince George's Country, call 794-6860 for assistance in locating a day care center near your home. No printed list of centers is available. The Prince George's County Commission for Women will publish, in October, a booklet liting day care facilities. In the county and suggestions on how to choose quality care. it will be distributed at libraries and other public facilities. For information on the booklet call the commission at 952-3383.

Federal subsidies, administered by the states, are available for parents who meet income requirements. A family of three would be eligible for all or partial subsidy if the family income was $17,050 or less. A parent of two children who earned the maximum amount would pay $21 a week for family day care and $35 a week for day care center care; the rest of the cost would be subsidized.

Parents who want more information on subsidized care should call, in Montgomery County, Department of Social Services, 468-4356; in Prince George's County, 927-4600, ext. 425.