Nestling a newborn in one arm, the 46-year-old woman reaches down to wipe the face of a child at her knee. Then she spies a muschievous little boy examining her coffee table knickknacks and gently warns him away.

All the while, she keeps an eye on the baby cooing in a nearby crib and a 2-year-old girl rolling on the floor, and squealing with pleasure.

Five days a week, the three-story Northeast Washington row house of Bernestine Bowden is alive with young children.But while Bowden, a smooth-skinned woman with graying curls, may seem like a grandmother, in fact none of the children she cares for is hers.

Bowden is one of the legions of District women who tend in their homes the young of the city's working parents. Like Bowden's, most are unlicensed, uninsured and unregulated homes, a situation that concerns those who advocate tighter regulation of day-care facilities.

But to thousands of parents, Bowden and those like her are godsends. They care for children in their homes -- rather than in the sometimes sterile and institutionalized setting of a licensed day-care facility -- and the care they provide frequently costs less. Good ones, like Bowden are in such demand that parents often beg them to care for their children.

"What else can you do in times like these when parents have to work?" said Cynthia Thomas, whose 5-month-old daughter spends the day with Bowden. "I wish I could stay home and take care of Roshida myself, but I know I can't afford it. . . I just thought she'd be good with my baby."

Thomas is not alone. There are approximately 34,000 children under 5 and more than 50,000 working women with at least one school-aged child in Washington, city figures show. Yet subsidized day-care facilities care for only 4,708 children.

That leads local advocates of regulated day-care facilities to guess that at least twice as many children may be enrolled in unlicensed home operations as in the 700 licensed ones.

That troubles day-care advocates.

"The District has probably the highest day-care needs in the country," said economist Mary Dublin Keyserling, former director of the Department of Labor Women's Bureau and author of the 1972 landmark study, "Windows on Day Care." "We have a law here [regulating day care in private homes], but I don't believe we begin to know how many day-care homes there are as opposed to those that are licensed."

"The quality of care in these homes ranges from very good or excellent, to terrible," said Helen Taylor, director of the National Child Day Care Association, which operates 20 day-care centers for the city.

Several studies that have shown long-term benefits of structured preschool education of the sort generally not available in unlicensed day-care homes. One study reports that children who attended preschool scored higher on reading, arithmetic, language and achievement tests at all grade levels than those who did not.

It concluded that preschool can cut by half the need for special education classes, and that children with a preschool background are more likely to be successful in work and other endeavors beyond school-aged years.

Even so, a four-year study soon to be published by the Department of Health and Human Services finds that parents show "a distinct preference" for home care of infants and toddlers because of the "stable, warm and stimulating" environment -- and the reasonable cost.

The report adds that there are few alternatives for working parents of very young children because most public funds support for day care is targeted to serve children 3 to 5 years old.

District law requires that anyone caring for children under 6 years old -- other than relatives -- obtain a license. In addition, no family day-care home may contain more than five children.

"Our concern is the children. This license protects them [home operators] as well as the children," said Herman Cook, of the DHS licensing and certification branch. "The license costs nothing, and the kinds of things we ask are not prohibitive."

Among those items required are an annual health exam for the day-care mother and children up to 6 years old, registration forms with parents' telephone numbers and authorization for emergency medical treatment, fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and "age-appropriate materials" for play, Cook said.

Bowden is one of the many who simply "never bothered to get a license," though at one point she obtained the necessary forms. She said that she never applied because she believed -- mistakenly -- that she would be allowed only to accept children referred by the city and that she would have to raise her fees.

According to a national study, those who run homes like Bowden's are among the most poorly paid workers in the nation, averaging 44 cents an hour for each child. Bowden says she is paid $20 to $30 per child a week.

In addition, they work long hours that include not only the parents' work day but their travel time to and from the job. They also must cope with the children's staggered arrival and departure times.

She said she has "always had somebody's children to care for. It just comes naturally to me."

In addition to Roshida, Bowden's workload currently consists of Chaunetta (3 weeks old), Wendell (1 1/2 years), Tonishia (20 months), and Shavonne (nearly 3). Their mothers' occupations range from nurse, to two clerical workers, to a high school senior, and even a day-care center teacher.

All but one are single parents. All said they were not only pleased with Bowden's handling of their children, but felt fortunate to have found her.

"I mostly have love, and I take good care of them. That's what the mothers are looking for," says Bowden. "You get a joy out of watching them grow."

The daily routine at Bowden's is an endless round of changing diapers, warming bottles, preparing lunch -- a hamburger and fruit for Tonishia, macaroni and cheese for Wendell, strained applesauce for Roshida, in between dozens of spontaneous hugs and cuddles. Competition for a place in her lap is never ending, and just as soon as Bowden sets one down she usually picks up another.

Deeply religious, Bowden said she manages it "with a lot of prayer" and some help from her 14-year-old son Jerry, who could not find a summer job.

Although she has held restaurant and cafeteria jobs, Bowden said her husband, Cleophus, prefers to have her home during the day. "I'd rather do this than most anything," she said.