Maryland officials have proposed the area's first regulations specifically for the care of infants in day-care centers, requiring that babies be "held, played with and talked to."

The proposed regulations would also for the first time give parents the legal right to visit centers unannounced and freely observe all areas during operating hours, a practice that is considered a major precaution against possible abuse.

The revisions would broaden other child protection measures, expanding the scope of adult background investigations, and including even those adults with limited contact with children, such as board members, trustees and owners.

During the past year, officials and experts have been divided about whether strengthening day-care standards can improve the quality of care without making it more expensive or harder to find.

Tough new regulations for family day-care providers -- those who bring children into their homes -- will become effective in July.

While some of the regulations would be strengthened, others would be relaxed. For instance, the maximum group size for school-age children in centers would increase from 26 to 30, with the same two-adult staffing level.

The proposed standards, developed by a panel of state and local officials and private child-care operators and their representatives, will be the subject of statewide hearings in July.

Officials said the regulations could go into effect in August.

Janet Oppenheimer, executive director of the Montgomery County Child Care Association, questioned some of the changes, in which the details of some restrictions were removed and left to the owner's interpretation.

Included are guidelines on playground equipment and center furnishings.

"They seem to be really less restrictive and I don't think entirely that's great," said Oppenheimer, whose nonprofit group includes 14 facilities.

Child-care advocates hope that the new infant regulations will streamline the licensing process so that more operators will choose to take infants.

Ann Feldman, of the Maryland Committee for Children, a child-care advocacy group, said it is the lengthy licensing process -- not strict regulations -- that hinders attempts to expand the supply of child care.

"If they're not implemented right, it won't help," Feldman said.

The demand for infant care is increasing as more mothers of young children work outside the home. But requirements that the ratio of babies to adults be low significantly pushes up the cost of infant care, sometimes to levels that a parent cannot afford. Of the 1,027 licensed centers in Maryland, 37 accept children under the age of 2, according to data from a state child-care advocacy group.

Peggy Daly Pizzo, director of the Arlington-based National Center for Clinical Infant Programs, praised the proposed regulations for dealing specifically with the care of infants. She said infant health and medical experts have been long concerned about the infectious and contagious diseases that spread easily among babies, and she applauded Maryland officials for including specific directions about such things as diapering and hand washing.

The new proposals would require that babies be held for each bottle feeding, unless they are capable of holding the bottles themselves.

Each infant must have an individual schedule of feeding and sleeping and be taken outdoors in fair weather. At all times, a staff member must be present with training in infant and toddler cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Rooms used for infant care must include telephones or intercoms.

"We're trying really hard not to have warehousing {of babies}," said Roberta Ward, an official of the Maryland licensing office. Previously, state-licensed infant programs were approved on a case-by-case basis.

The District's Office of Early Childhood Development is working on revisions of its child-care standards that will include infant care regulations, while Virginia, which plans a major revision of its rules in 1992, has none.

With child-care workers also in short supply, Maryland would drop the mandatory age limit for senior teachers from 21 to 20.

Directors of centers with babies and toddlers would need additional training or experience on infant behavior and development.

Criminal background checks would include adults who live in the immediate area of a center, such as in an attic apartment or basement apartment.

Current regulations require criminal background checks for employees and show only crimes for which there is a conviction.

Under the proposed rules, the state would also be given the power to investigate complaints and charges of child abuse and neglect that officials said seldom show up on police background checks.

Require caretakers to hold babies for bottle feedings unless the children are capable of holding the bottles themselves.

Have individual schedule of feeding and sleeping for each infant, and take the babies outdoors in fair weather.

Have a staff member present with training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation at all times.

Have telephones or intercoms in all rooms used for infant care.

Give parents legal right to visit centers unannounced and observe all areas during operating hours.

Expand the scope of background investigations of anyone associated with the center's operation, even people with limited contact with children.