Columbia Falls, Mont., population 3,310, is 10 hours of plane rides and several lifestyles away from Bethesda, but Teri Schneider happily crossed time zones and cultures to become a nanny here.

"For a Montana girl, being a nanny is the best way to get out of the state," said Schneider, 20. "For me, there was nothing there . . . . It's a great opportunity to be a nanny, if you find the right family."

Schneider is part of a growing network of young women from the Northwest and Midwest who have become nannies in the Washington area, as the demand for in-home child care has grown. Increasingly unable to find what they are looking for locally, more well-to-do Washington parents have started importing young women from America's heartland either on their own or, more typically, through nanny agencies.

Some agencies have started specializing in women from the Midwest and Northwest, particularly Montana, Iowa and Washington state. Those areas make good nanny-hunting grounds, agency heads say, because unemployment is high in some parts or there are few opportunities for young women.

"A lot of these areas are economically depressed . . . . There is not a lot for {young women} to do once they get out of high school," said Suzanne Cook, owner of American Nannies in Silver Spring. One of Cook's main recruiting offices is in Whitefish, Mont., in a northwestern part of the state where unemployment is 8.6 percent, several percentage points above the national average.

"Nannying is now what secretarial work was 20 or 25 years ago for girls not going immediately to college," Cook said.

For the young women who come here, the nation's capital is often seen as exciting with opportunities to meet different types of people, to experience a faster-paced East Coast life or to save money for college.

Schneider, whose first trip out of Montana was a drive to Washington state after she graduated from high school, went to New York City as a nanny, was married briefly, returned to Montana and then got her current job here through a newspaper ad after deciding she liked the work and the East Coast. She now lives in a basement apartment in the brick split-level home of Helen Kanovsky, who has two daughters, 5-year-old Emily and 8-year-old Jennifer.

"I grew up watching kids all my life, and I find them very special," said Schneider, who as the oldest of 18 grandchildren spent much of her teen years babysitting for her cousins. She plans to stay as a nanny with her Bethesda family indefinitely, and hopes to obtain a degree in special education while doing so.

For others, nannying is a steppingstone to other things. "Some people think it will be a way to save for school," said Ginger Bryan, 21, also from Columbia Falls. "I couldn't decide what I wanted to do with my life." She was toying with the idea of joining the Army when she saw an agency ad in a local paper and decided to try nannying. Bryan has been with the same Oakton family for three years, saving her money, and now attends nursing school at Northern Virginia Community College.

"I didn't know if I wanted to stay in Montana and get a job in a restaurant or be a nanny," said Wendy Mikelson, but then a recruiter suggested she come to Washington as a summer nanny to try it out. Mikelson, a friend of Schneider's, has worked as a nanny in Bel Air, Md., and Potomac and is just starting a job with a suburban Maryland family. Mikelson plans to return to college, probably in this area, to study international business and needs money to do so.

Washington parents have started looking to other areas of the country for nannies because they are disappointed with the response they get to ads placed locally, with the most common complaint being that so many people who answer them are immigrants who speak little or no English, according to nanny agency heads.

People who speak no English "can't interact with the child," Cook said.

In addition, agency heads say, women who already live in this area are more likely to demand higher salaries than those from other regions who may be looking mainly for a safe way to relocate to the East Coast and who generally are used to a lower cost of living.

There is a negative to hiring these young women, say parents who have brought them here: They may get homesick or feel isolated if they have no friends here. They may return home or take other kinds of jobs, and the family is out both an airplane ticket and a child-care provider.

Recruiters advertise in small weeklies and major daily papers such as the Des Moines Register, which on a recent Sunday carried more than a dozen ads from agencies and families wanting nannies to come to the East Coast, plus several ads from Californians. Agency workers also have started going to high schools in the Northwest and Midwest to promote nanny training with counselors and others.

Once here, the young women often recommend nannying to their friends back home and have created an informal network in the Washington area. "There's like an underground almost," Mikelson said.

Missy Attridge, owner of Heartland Nannies in Bethesda, recruits primarily from Montana, Wyoming and Washington state.

"It's a nice intermediate step for a lot of girls. They move to a new area, but in a family setting," Attridge said.

Most of the women who come from far away are looking for live-in situations because they do not know the area, and they can earn $150 to $300 a week, depending on their experience, in addition to room and board and often use of a family car.

According to a Washington Post survey last year, 11 percent of all children under 5 in care in the Washington area have a nonrelative caring for them in their home.

Some recruiters claim that Midwestern and Northwestern women have a different philosophy and orientation than those on either coast that make them well-suited to becoming nannies.

"Girls {from the Northwest} seem to have a good background in family care because they aren't from the cities," said Dilys Andersen, who works for Classic Nannies, a Vancouver-based agency that recruits nannies from Washington state, Montana, Oregon and Idaho.

For Schneider, the magic of the East is still there, and she relishes the new world that has opened up to her. "On the East Coast, there are so many different kinds of people."