The group of mothers gathered in the living room, many with infants in their arms, laughed knowingly when Marta Amaya, a fragile-looking 20-year-old, shared her problem with them.
Her 14-month-old daughter was refusing to go to sleep at night, she told them, opting instead to cry loudly. The breaking point for Amaya came when a neighbor knocked on her door, complaining of the noise and asking if she was beating the baby.
The story led to a simple but telling question: How do you put a baby to sleep when she doesn't want to go to sleep?
It's a typical question at the Family Place, a highly acclaimed community-based organization in Mount Pleasant that teaches mostly immigrant women how to be mothers.
By providing a family-like setting where mothers are taught the basics in child rearing, the Family Place has helped lower the rate of low birth weight babies born to agency participants to half the city's average for Hispanics. Low birth weight -- under 5 pounds -- is a key factor in infant mortality.
"Early intervention in pregnancy results in better birth outcomes," said Maria Elena Orrego, the director of the Family Place. "The first three years of a child's life are critical. And 10 percent of children born in poverty develop a disability."
Three percent of the pregnant participants in the Family Place had low birth weight babies last year. Six percent of all Hispanic babies born in the District had low birth weight, as did more than 14 percent of all babies citywide, said Ann Barnet, a professor of pediatrics and neurology at George Washington University, who helped found the Family Place nine years ago.
Barnet, who works at Children's Hospital, said she created a community center that she hoped would act as an extended family for new mothers.
"A lot of people in any big city feel alone and isolated," she said. ". . . A lot of people simply lacked a place of community, a place where people were interested in them."
Amaya, for example, said she came to the United States from El Salvador three years ago. The only people she knew then were her husband and some brothers already living here. She knew no women, and after the birth of her daughter, she knew no one who could advise her on rearing the child, she said.
That isolation left some mothers unable to care for their children because no one told them how, Barnet said. She said she has seen bright, happy 8-month-olds turn into listless 22-month-olds because they weren't receiving the attention they needed.
"I've seen many parents who had questions about children and their relationship with children," Barnet said of her experience at Children's Hospital. "Unfortunately, an acute-care setting like Children's is not an appropriate place to help them."
So the Family Place was created in 1981 to serve mostly impoverished families who needed guidance with child rearing. Barnet said she chose an Adams-Morgan location initially, hoping to attract participants from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. The center moved to 3309 16th St. NW four years ago, becoming one of the few community centers in the city that owns its property.
The timing of the founding of the Family Place coincided with a period of explosive change in Washington, especially in Adams-Morgan. The early 1980s brought an influx of Central Americans, especially Salvadorans, to the District hoping to escape the increasing civil strife in their countries.
"Through the grapevine, we became a refugee center," Barnet said. "It became a place where women who often had nothing, except a pregnant belly, had a place to go. Gradually, it kind of assumed a Latino flavor."
Some of the parental concerns of the immigrant clients initially surprised counselors at the Family Place. Maria Benitez, a parenting services coordinator, said that mothers have an array of typical questions about babies. Immigrant mothers face additional hurdles, based mostly in communication problems, Benitez said. Mothers who have visited clinics or doctor's offices will often report to counselors at the Family Place that they need to take the baby back. But they don't understand why -- or what's wrong with the child.
And sometimes the problem is that the parents can't understand the English phrases their children pick up.
Benitez recalled one mother's asking in Spanish what her child meant when she scolded him and he replied: "So what, Mommy?"
The first six months that the Family Place was open, it served 40 families, Orrego said. By word of mouth, the list of participants grew steadily so that last year the center worked with 430 families and witnessed the birth of 183 babies, with two deaths.
During this time, the Family Place also grew into a multifaceted educational facility that not only teaches parenting, but also offers English classes and shows mothers how to take advantage of area health clinics.
All of that is accomplished in a spirit of community, she said, adding that she is proud that not once last year did a Latino family who used the Family Place enter a shelter for the homeless. "Other participants opened up their homes."
For Amaya, who is expecting her second child in August, the Family Place is a godsend. After learning how to deal with obstinance in children, she learned how to bathe them properly. "It's difficult," she said in Spanish about child rearing without a relative's help. "They have the experience, they know what to do."