Every working morning, Jeanne LaBella and Karen Anderson pack up their briefcases, lunches, and children to take to the office.

Owing to a fortunate set of circumstances--babies born about the same time, a receptive employer, and a move to a new, more spacious office in Washington's West End--they were able to set up a nursery in an unused room. LaBella and Anderson returned to work the same week, six and seven weeks after the births of their children, Lindsey and Adam.

Most mothers working in the District are not so lucky, however. Although a number of businesses either have attempted to set up on-site child-care centers or have proposals to do so in the works, few have materialized.

Federal government employes in Washington are more likely than others to have a day-care option available to them. Interested parents at several agencies have taken the initiative to organize centers that are funded by tuition paid by the parents, often on a sliding scale. The Department of Labor, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, among others, offer some form of on-the-job child care.

LaBella and Anderson both work for the American Public Power Association, the trade association for municipally owned power systems, where LaBella is editor of the newsletter and Anderson is the energy conservation manager. The idea of bringing their children to work was conceived well before the babies were born when two other staff members suggested it to them half-jokingly.

"At first it was kind of a lark," said LaBella. She and Anderson talked about the idea with other people in the office and mulled it over several months before presenting a proposal to the executive director of the association, Alex Radin. "We put together a very thoughtful memo trying to dispel any misgivings he might have. He didn't say yes immediately, but after about six weeks he finally said, 'Yes, go ahead with it.' He was concerned about the impact on other staff members."

The nursery has worked out well for the mothers and for the office as a whole, however, according to Radin.

"I think it has many advantages," he said. "It permits the employes to come back earlier, it saves us money, and it's good for the morale of the office." He describes the nursery's effect as creating a "family feeling." Other staff members have been supportive, and the nursery is a popular stop on every tour of the office. The association saves the cost of the 60 percent disability payments paid during maternity leave and the 100 percent replacement salaries for the two, and incurs no out-of-pocket expenses for the nursery.

The advantages to the mothers are clear. Without the nursery, neither would have returned to work so soon, nor would they have had the satisfaction of being so close to their infants all the time. The mothers keep a regular work schedule and visit the babies twice a day--30 minutes around lunch time and 30 minutes in the afternoon.

There are also advantages for the baby-sitter. It's a 9-to-5 job in an office where she can visit other adults and which is a short walk from the Foggy Bottom metro stop.

LaBella and Anderson screened about 100 applicants who responded to a newspaper ad. Their choice, Sarah Joaquin, is a retired university theater instructor who has studied creative dramatics as a teaching tool for children. She enjoys looking after the infants and finds that following their development is particularly rewarding. "I'm a grandmother, but I missed watching my grandchildren grow up," she said.

The nursery, located in a quiet area of the office near the kitchen, is outfitted with playpens, a rocking chair, a changing table, and various toys donated by staff members. Anderson said they keep a case of diapers in the storeroom. "We try to anticipate any contingency, so all we really have to move back and forth is the baby." The mothers split costs for the nursery gear which includes a double stroller.

On the whole, the experiment has worked ideally, and the mothers say they are proud that an office nursery can work.

It was agreed at the outset that the arrangement would continue only through May when the children will be weaned and old enough to be away from their mothers. The next step for LaBella and Anderson is finding or establishing a child-care cooperative near the office.

Although an office nursery for infants is rare, child-care at the workplace has recently gained popularity as an employe benefit in the Washington area and nationwide. The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union in Verona, Va., and the Stride Rite Corp. in Boston, for example, both offer subsidized day-care. Three Northern Virginia hospitals offer the benefit, partly as a means of attracting nurses to work there.

Reflecting on her situation, Anderson said, "I find it's a better-balanced life. I don't feel like I'm missing Adam's development, and I'm also able to continue my career." Without the nursery, Anderson said, she might have missed as much as six months of work instead of six weeks.

"My husband is one of our strongest supporters," she said. "He's able to see Adam on his lunch hour, and we share responsibilities equally. He can comfort Adam as well as I can because he has spent as many hours with him."

She added, "I'd love to see the day when fathers bring their young children to work with them. There is no reason why a 9-month-old can't go to work with his dad."