Women from around the nation who operate day-care centers in their homes met in Washington over the weekend to announce they will no longer be known as baby sitters.

Henceforth, proclaimed the conference of more than 400, including a man or two, the title is family day-care provider.

The year-old National Association for Family Day Care, holding its first national meeting, said its members do not fit the stereotype of a woman in a bathrobe and curlers who watches her neighbor's children for a couple of hours while the neighbor runs errands. Instead, members of the group meeting at the Shoreham Hotel agreed, they want to be known as professional businesswomen who work at home.

"Why are people still calling you baby sitters?" asked Patricia Douglas of the Agency for Child Development in New York City.

"You have to say, 'I am going into a profession. I am not going to be their surrogate mother,' " advised Donna Kent, a day-care provider from Manchester, N.H. " . . . You have to be proud of what you do." Otherwise parents will take advantage of providers, she said.

Family day-care providers are becoming increasingly important in American society as more mothers with small children return to work. Half of the women in the United States with children under 6 work full time, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The percentage of working mothers is expected to increase.

Family day care is the most popular form of care for children. There are an estimated 4 million to 6 million in family day-care homes and about 2 million in more formal day-care centers, according to Diane Adams, a child-care specialist from Madison, Wis.

Adams estimated only 3 percent of the family day-care homes in the country are regulated by state and local governments. There are about 250 licensed day- care providers in the District, according to the city's Department of Human Services.

The conference offered help on topics ranging from coping with zoning regulations, which can become onerous for day-care providers, to handling discipline, keeping records, and creating a curriculum for children.

The new image of the family day-care provider was perhaps best illustrated by Kent, who with her husband, Jeffrey, operates Windermere Child Care Services of Manchester, N.H.

Kent, who wore a tailored suit and ruffled blouse, looked like a banker as she lectured women on starting a family day-care business.

Kent and her husband have drawn up documents covering such key issues as hours, payment, medical treatment and toys. The documents spell out what services they provide and what parents are expected to do. She advised her colleagues to do the same.

For example, the Kents charge $1 for every half-hour parents are late in picking up their children. The second time a parent arrives late and has not notified the Kents in advance the charge is $2 per half-hour of overtime.

"It's important for your business. It shows you're a professional, and it helps to explain what you're doing," Kent said. "The policies don't have to be too involved, but they should cover the important things like getting paid on time or preferably getting paid in advance."

Allegra Smith, one of the few day-care operators from the District to attend the conference, said she has similar problems with parents. Smith, 53, cares for five children ranging in age from 20 months to 3 years in her 10-room house on Minnesota Avenue SE.

"The biggest problem is getting the parents to get the children there on time and picking up the children on time. They have forgotten we are only there to assist them. We can't do their job," she said.

Smith and other operators at the conference said parents commonly send their children to day care when the parents are on vacation.

"They don't mind dropping the child off in the morning and picking them up at night, but they don't want their days filled up with this child that they carried for nine months," she said.

Smith opened her day-care home two years ago after she injured her back and retired from a secretarial job. She has three children of her own, all grown, so caring for small children again was difficult at first, she said.

"Oh Lord, is it hard because you're so used to having that peace and quiet and being able to sit down when you're tired. You need a lasso and a pair of roller skates," she said.

But now, she said, the children in her care are accustomed to the routine she has set for them, which includes calisthenics, painting, reading and outdoor play.