Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph A. Califano Jr. has recommended relaxing tough federal staffing requirements for day care centers.

The standards, applicable to all federally aided day care centers, have been suspended for years because of a bitter dispute between HEW and a congressional group headed by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Russell B. Long (D-La.).

Long contended that required ratios of children to teachers and caregivers would cost centers and parents a lot of extra money without giving any real added benefit to the child.

A four-year HEW study released in March concluded that staffing ratios could be eased without harm to the child, provided there were limits on the size of a day care group. It found that children did better in smaller groups.

On Friday Califano filed proposed regulations outline new staffing ratios for all day care centers receiving federal did. About $600 million a year goes to centers handling about 1 million children. The new regulations wouldn't apply to Head Start, which has its own requirements.

The new regulations were presented as a series of options from which Califano will choose a final figure after hearings and public discussion. They include:

For children from birth to 2 1/2 years old, the teacher-child ratio would be either 1 to 4 or 1 to 5. The maximum number of children enrolled in one group would be eight or 10.

For children from 2 1/2 to 3 years old the adult-to-child ratio would be 1 to 7 or 1 to 8 (it' now 1 to 5 for 3-year olds). Maximum group size: 14 or 16.

For children 4 and 5 the staffing ratio would be 1 to 9 or 1 to 10. (Now it's 1 to 7.) Maximum group size: 18 or 20.

The proposed regulations also would impose requirments on health safety, nutrition and educational content, paralleling some rules now in effect.

The Children's Defense Fund said that, in some cases, two options for a final rule are laid out and the weaker one would be unacceptable to CDF and other children's welfare organization. "Even the stronger one in many cases would be a bare minimum needed for the welfare of the child," CDF said.

Among the other subjects for proposed regulations: requirements that a day care center have a planned program of activities to promote the child's social, intellectual, emotional and physical development; requirements for some specialized training for adults acting as caregivers; requirements that the center obtain proof of immunization for childhood diseases and either advise parents where to get health help or actively aid them, and requirements that the center advise parents on getting social services from other agencies.