Seven-month-old Erine Braxton sat quietly on her mother's lap, helping turn the pages of a colorful catalogue filled with photographs of toys. Using her daughter's squeals as a guide, Emilia Braxton picked out a toy for Erine.

But instead of turning to her wallet to purchase the music box and mirror that attracted Erine's eye, Emilia Braxton pulled out her library card and checked the items out of the Howard County Library's Babywise collection of books and toys geared to aid the development of literacy skills in infants and toddlers.

"It saves money," said Braxton, a registered nurse at the Patuxent Correctional Institute. And best of all, she said, the program allows her to determine Erine's interest in a toy before buying it.

The Babywise program, which began in 1984 funded by a state grant, is targeted toward children younger than 3. Although Baltimore has a similar program for handicapped children, the Howard toy library in Columbia is the only one in Maryland specifically for these young children, said Larry Chamblain, an official with the state Department of Education.

Karen Ponish, who runs the program, said it was begun by library officials eager to provide services to this fast-growing segment of the county's population.

Traditionally, library services have been aimed at older preschoolers who have longer attention spans and greater mental capabilities than infants and toddlers. But child development specialists increasingly stress that the first three years of life are the most important period for mental development, and the library hoped to help parents teach their children then, Ponish explained.

"The program was started to serve children under 3 who are not yet reading . . . since toys are valuable in the learning process," she said.

The Babywise collection was cited this summer by the Department of Education in a listing of exemplary library and media programs.

Parents are the traditional providers of early educational experiences, Ponish said, but because almost half of the mothers of small children in the county work outside the home, the librarians saw a strong need to help reinforce the children's opportunities.

Ponish said the program, which has an annual budget of $9,000, has been very popular and "the shelves are almost bare after weekends." For example, she said, in June more than 1,700 requests for items from the collection were made.

The Babywise toy collection is in the county's central library in Columbia, but catalogues are available in the bookmobile that travels around the county and in other county library branches. Residents using branch libraries can fill out a card requesting certain toys and the central library delivers the toys to that branch.

Ponish selects each of the toys and books and evaluates them for safety, sturdiness, color, educational value and suitability for circulation.

The library has more than 500 toys, including a variety of the regular commercial ones such as those manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, Playskool and Fisher-Price. It also offers imported wooden toys and adaptive toys, which are operated by batteries and can be used by handicapped children.

"The international toys have been some of the patrons' favorites since most are available only at specialty toy stores or through catalogue orders," Ponish said.

Ponish said the toys get a lot of wear and tear. The library staff expects that, she said, and is understanding of small signs of use. But if a toy is broken or a piece of a puzzle is missing, she said, the borrower must pay for a replacement.

Nancy Farkas of Ellicott City, who brings her 2 1/2-year-old daughter Laura and 1-year-old son Michael, said she "likes having such a variety of toys to choose from . . . . I've been using it for two years and will continue rather than spend lots of money on toys."

Toys are available during all library hours, which are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.

The toy library is in the middle of the children's department, surrounded by stacks of books and audio-visual materials. The noise level often exceeds the familiar library silence, but officials there acknowledge that it is a positive indicator of youngsters' learning.

Lucina Ware, a teacher in the county school system who lives in Dayton, brings her 2 1/2-year-old daughter Alison to the library once a week for a story hour and to check out toys. Because Alison tires of playing with the same puzzles, her mother said, checking them out is much more practical than buying them. "It is a great way to introduce a new toy," Ware said.

Children's librarians, who have attended training sessions on early childhood development and play, often assist parents and children after checking the children's maturity level.

The program also offers services to children in day care homes and children of teen-agers.

To help family day care providers encourage the development of the young children in their care, a collection of day care kits on 10 themes has been developed by the library. They deal with topics that were suggested by day care providers and teachers, including animals, body awareness, community helpers and danger.

The program also offers story-times by a library staff member, Sandra Mergehenn, who travels to the homes regularly. At the end of each session, the children are given a written copy of the titles of books used and the words from songs and fingerplays to take home.

The story-times serve 25 day care homes and more than 150 children. Ellie Hearn, who conducts an early childhood program in her home in Columbia for five children, said the children "delight when Ms. Sandy comes . . . . they pay attention and participate."