COLUMBIA -- Michelle Diffendal carefully changed her 2-week-old son Stephen's diaper and then looked around to explain to a handful of other new mothers that Stephen had not let her sleep for the past four nights.

Linda Linton, holding her 3-week-old son Peter, sat on the sofa and said she felt like "giving up" because she too had been up most of the night and was having a very hard time nursing the baby.

And Janet Warren explained to the women that she feared going back to work and leaving her 7-week-old daughter in the care of a baby sitter.

The mothers were participating in a nationwide program based here that helps them learn that they are not alone in their concerns, fears and emotional upheavals.

In fact, they were finding out that the episodes they often viewed as crises are common and were exchanging tips on how to deal with them.

"It is good to be told by peers that they are having some of the same problems and everything is going to be all right," said Dana Kleinsteuber, who came to the session with her 4-week-old daughter Sara.

The six-year-old program, called Mothering Seminars Inc., is a nonprofit organization developed by Ellen Sosinski and Frances Thomas of Columbia.

It provides support and information for parents of newborn to 3-months-old babies by bringing them into a home to meet with other parents under the direction of a more experienced mother.

They hold seven sessions per year with approximately 70 mothers. They take turns giving the seminars in their homes with comfortable seating, rocking chairs, access to the kitchen and a corner set aside for diapering.

The five-week sessions, costing $40 per adult or $45 per couple are divided into five topics: coping with change; family relationships; infant development and stimulation; health, safety and nutrition, and reestablishing intimacy for couples.

They mothers also spend a great deal of time discussing problems they bring to the session.

"There are other groups of this kind offered in the county," said Sue Hampshire, program coordinator at Family Life Center in Columbia, "but it is a structured program whereas you meet and see the same people each time rather than having different people just drop in."

Dr. Kenneth Klebanow, a pediatrician at the Columbia Medical Center, said "The program is very useful because in Columbia, there is a fair amount of transient people and less of a family support system" to help new parents cope.

For Sosinski and Thomas, the program is just an extension of their own experiences as mothers. They joined a similar program seven years ago when their children were born, but the woman running it opted to quit. Sosinski said, "We did not want to see the program die," so they started their own operation.

"Some of the mothers are initially timid, fearing they will have to show their skills at changing, nursing or entertaining a baby in front of others. It is a proving ground," Thomas said.

"You're laying groundwork to get out in the world -- but in a safe place. They learn to be comfortable to go out in the world."

During a recent morning session, Lorelei Allan, who has recently moved to Columbia, stood through the early part of the get-together. Each time she tried to sit down, her 11-week-old daughter Rachel would cry. Finally Sosinski told Allan to sit and just let the baby cry.

Rachel's squalls set off several other young participants, but Sosinski and Thomas worked to help the mothers become comfortable with the crying.

At the same session, Linton told of the struggle she had trying to get her son to nurse properly. Sosinski watched while Peter Linton nursed and offered suggestions and encouragement. She then described her own experiences and said that she was able to breastfeed her daughter for 13 months.

Beyond the immediate problems of feeding and sleeping, the women also talk about their life styles. Diffendal said she felt her husband was not helping enough with the baby.

"I was so tired, and when Stephen went to bed last night I insisted that my husband join me with a beer . . . and we talk about him helping me out with the baby," she said.

Then with a smile she added, "The result has been good, because my husband has been changing diapers and not just playing with Stephen."

Susan Salvucci, who came to the session with 11-week-old Gregory, said that her husband had been out of town for the past week and she had received lots of help from her other two children. "When my husband is home, he feeds and changes the baby and allows me to relax . . . . He is definitely a father of the '80s," she said.

By the end of the session, the mothers said they were encouraged again.

"The program is great for sharing and learning things about the babies and I've met new friends here," Allan said.