Many mornings, 5-year-old Billy Vesilind of Fairfax stages a losing battle to stay in bed. His mother, worried about getting him to the day-care center by 7:30 so she can be at work by 8, switches on the radio to rouse him. She sings, she dances. He dozes.

"I usually stay in bed a little because I'm so drowsy I have to get my bones together to do stuff," he explains. If he doesn't get them together fast enough, his mother dresses him as he slumbers, then deposits him wrapped in a blanket with his favorite breakfast of melted cheese on toast, at University View Child Care Center, his home away from home.

Christopher Davis, age 4, lives next door to the day-care center, but like most children at University View, he arrives by car. "You can't walk, you can't lose time," says his father, a Honeywell executive. "By the time you walk him over there and you walk him back you've lost about 15 minutes. So you do what everyone else does, you put him in the car."

Throughout the Washington area, variations on the same theme are repeated every morning by harried parents and their sleepy children. For many, the stop at the day-care center is the first lap in a day timed as carefully as the Indy 500.

University View is one of about 650 local licensed day-care centers and one of about 19,000 nationally, all symbols of a fundamental change in the way Americans raise their children. The emergence of the working mother is redefining early childhood in ways hardly recognizable to middle-class parents who grew up at a time, says one, "where nobody's mother worked, except maybe at the department store, and that was for the 20 percent discount."

Many of the children at University View came to the center after an infancy split between parents and baby sitters. Many spend more hours here than their parents do at work. It is here that many will learn to tie their shoes, use the toilet and pull up their zippers. And they have lots of company.

Almost half of the nation's children under 6 have working mothers, Labor Department statistics show, and the majority of those children spend their weekdays away from home. About half stay with relatives, but an increasing number do not. Last year an estimated 1.2 million children were enrolled in day-care centers, triple the number in 1960. Several million more children receive care in neighborhood day-care homes.

Earlier in this century, an era of hard-working, close-knit farm and immigrant families gave way to one of child-centered prosperity that reached its peak in the 1950s. Now the United States has entered the day-care age, where toddlers play 9 to 5 and family time is at a premium.

Day-care centers are like prisms, through which the hurried lives of parents and the implacable needs of their small children collide and refract. University View is one center, but it tells a larger story.

The working parents of University View children see day care as less a moral question than a practical necessity, the best of all possible arrangements in an imperfect world. Predominantly white, middle class and middle income, they say they work to build a future for their children, and they hope they are not jeopardizing it in the process.

Whether their children will turn out differently than the ones who spent childhood at home they cannot know. Sometimes they think about it. "I'll let you know in 15 years," says one father.

"Nobody really knows about those intangibles, like creativity," says Susan Smith, director of the center. "What are the effects of being in a group for large parts of the day, not having time to sit alone in your room and play with an erector set? I wonder about it myself . . . . "

If parents don't have the money, or the desire, to revert to traditional childrearing patterns, however, the question is academic.

"Day care is a fact," says Smith. "The issue is not whether it's good or bad, the issue is how can we make it as good as we can. It's like saying taxes are bad. They are. We'd all dearly love to live without them, but we just can't run our kind of society without them."

University View is a nonprofit center, operated by the Salvation Army on a few sunbaked acres in the heart of Fairfax County. By all appearances it is Beaver Cleaver country, recalling the quintessentially normal suburban life style portrayed by the television sitcom of the 1950s--large pleasant houses, station wagons, low crime rates.

All of the children at University View have parents who work full-time. More than a third are enrolled in the center's full-time program--18 of 46 come from single-parent homes, partly because the center is one of the few in Fairfax County that will accept subsidy children. All but three of the single-parent families need county subsidy to meet the $280 monthly tuition.

The center's 4-year-olds are called "Birds"--Bluebirds, Robins and Cardinals. Their room is cluttered with the carefully chosen paraphernalia of play. There are red, 13-inch molded plastic chairs, no higher because the Birds tend to tip over in anything taller. Chip, the hamster, lies sleeping in his redolent lair. Books, puzzles, blocks and paints are stacked on shelves.

There are no electronic games, no television, just a small phonograph that plays soothing, scratchy LPs of "Born Free" and the William Tell Overture at nap time.

University View is known to Fairfax children's specialists, and center parents, as one of the best day-care centers in the Washington area.

"They're so good to the kids, they watch them and teach them," says Marsha Barnhart, mother of 4-year-old Joshua. "It's fresh and clean and everybody loves everybody."

For many of the children, morning is the hardest part of the day and they begin climbing out of their parents' cars as early as 7 a.m.

"It's a shame, because they need to sleep," says a teacher, "but what can they parents do, they have to work."

Josh entered the Birds' room at 8:15 the other morning riding triumphantly on his mother's hip. "See you later, kiddo," she said hopefully, and attempted to set him down. "See you later, kiddo," he giggled, without unwrapping his legs. His smile wavered, the room grew quiet, the children watched.

His mother winced, then whispered in his ear. He relented, but as her footsteps faded, he ran to the window, tried to open it and fiddled halfheartedly with the latch. He thumped on the pane with his fist as his mother drove away. A teacher drew him onto her lap, and soothed him.

The vigil at the window is a ritual worked out by the teachers to ease the morning farewells.

"In the first couple of weeks, they'll come in here in the morning and cry," says Birds' teacher Ellen Vetter. "And you hold them and walk them around. And after a while they stop. And then they cry when it's time to go home. Some of them do it to punish mom, I think."

"We try to explain to them that mommy wants them here and we love you and we'll take care of you," says Smith. "We say, 'Your job is to come here and mommy's job is to go to work.' "

The separation is often just as hard on parents. Marsha Barnhart has worked since she and her husband separated a year after Joshua was born.

"I do it for financial reasons," she says. "If I had my choice, I'd stay with the boys at home, definitely. It's a hard thing to do to give your kid up to someone else's care. I mean . . . you're not imprinting your values and morals on your children, you're letting someone else do it for you."

And memorably, at that. Joan Davis, mother of Christopher, works four days a week as a nurse. Her son Chris spent so much of his first 2 1/2 years with a neighborhood baby sitter that when Joan Davis took him to the grocery store on Saturdays, the locals thought she was the baby sitter. Chris called his baby sitter "mom" and his mother "Joan." "That went on a long time," she says. "That didn't bother us. I figured he'd figure it out soon enough."

With mothers at work all day it is up to the day-care teacher to extend the apron strings. The younger, and more vulnerable the child, psychologists say, the more important the right teacher can be.

Ellen Vetter has been teaching at University View since the school opened four years ago. She is a retired public school teacher, and she sees herself as a "temporary mom" first and an educator second.

"I think it's very important for young children to have that personal contact," she says. "There's no one like mom to push and stimulate." A small boy tugs on her hand and points to his feet. "Sometimes," she says, bending down, "I feel like I have a degree in tying shoes."

If she or her colleagues see a youngster is quiet or anxious they will sit the child down for a quiet talk or a hug. They try to know the complications in children's home lives. "There are lots of kids where you have to think about what happened last weekend," says director Smith, "to understand why that child may be behaving a certain way."

While the long-term effects of infant day-care are still hotly debated among child psychologists, the consensus is that good day care does not significantly help or harm the average child over 2 1/2 years. For children from homes split by divorce, good day care can be the glue that keeps a child together. Shy, quiet Casey Roberts, 4, was enrolled at the center shortly after her parents separated. "When she first came in she would just sort of throw herself on the floor near the door," says Vetter. Casey also climbed into teachers' laps and wet her pants, "something to do with her parents breaking up, I'm sure," says her father, Raymond Roberts.

After a few months at University View, her father says, Casey came out of her shell. "They've really done a good job with her." She still wanders wordlessly on the playground at times, but she smiles now, and at story time she sits, high and dry, on the lap of her best friend, Kylie.

"Any child with slower development, whether social, emotional or cognitive, benefits from all the attention here," says Smith.

Unlike day-care centers that try to prepare super babies for the computer age, University View considers social skills as important as the three Rs. Pushing a child into kindergarten without those social skills, says Smith, is setting that child up for failure.

Twice a year the center's teachers test and score each child on skills in 176 categories, such as "cooperates with adult request 90 percent of time," "blows, wipes nose without reminder 75 percent of time," and "pedals appropriate size tricycle five feet," to measure coordination and emotional maturity.

If a child does not score well, it may be recommended that he or she stay back. Many kindergartens, Smith says, are so pressured to get through the curriculum they don't have time to wait for children with other problems.

Even so, many parents, upwardly mobile and ambitious themselves, are reluctant to let a child fall behind. "You go in the toy store and the second thing you see is a whole big wall of books," says Joan Davis. "You really get the pressure, you know college is going to be expensive, so you've got to produce a genius."

Sometimes the parents' pace is part of the problem. When Chris Davis' teachers told his parents they weren't sure he was ready for kindergarten, the Davises consulted their old baby sitter, a full-time mother of five.

She suggested that the couple find a half hour a day to sit quietly with their son while he practiced coloring his name. They did, and Chris improved.

"We were suffering from the working parents syndrome," Joan Davis says. "It's 'hurry up, hurry up, we've got to go, if you can't do it I'll do it for you.' At school they have group things, but the kid's never really alone to learn to think how to concentrate. He's had to learn that just like he had to learn to walk."

Putting children on a workday schedule also is troubling to some parents.

"Josh has been on this schedule since he was 6 months old," says Marsha Barnhart. "He and his brother Jacob wake up in the morning and say, 'Oh, it's not Saturday.' And I think, 'Oh God, poor little 4-year-old kid is already thinking Monday through Friday.' They need to play and they need to get crazy and run out in the woods and swing on a rope and not think about 'I have to be here at 7:30 each day.' "

Smith, the center director, agrees, at least partially. Children who spend eight hours in day care, she says, probably don't derive any greater social and scholastic benefit than children who spend the morning in nursery school. So the center tries to limit structured activities and allot time for free play.

It is a delicate balance. When upset, children suffer, and so do parents. The first day-care center Rima Vesilind found for her son Billy was in a converted house. It was crowded, understaffed and small.

"They weren't set up to deal with small children," Vesilind says. "He was very unhappy. He would say, 'I don't like this lady because she yells at me when I spill my milk at lunch.' He was wetting his pants more and more and more, purposely, I discovered, simply because it made them mad and they would call me and he would get to go home."

After the switch to University View, "it was incredible," Vesilind said. "It was like night and day."

Lunch at University View is a frivolous affair, characterized by frequent laughter and hearty appetites. It is cooked and served daily by Janet Di Tanna, the wife of a retired foreign service officer. She is something of an alchemist.

With a clove of garlic or a dash of cinnamon she transforms vegetables such as kale into favorites du jour. That's a good thing, too, for children whose parents may be too exhausted at the end of the day to buy and prepare food for a balanced meal.

"Last night," says one 5-year-old as he spoons up some spinach, "we had to go shopping, so we went in the car, but first we went to McDonald's to get some food. I had a hamburger, french fries and a orange drink. My mom had, I don't know. I know my dad had that, um, let me think, a Big Mac."

After lunch, the children brush their teeth, use the toilet and carefully wash their hands. Noses are wiped. Colds, sore throats, coughs and chicken pox are the bane of any place where children gather together.

"In the winter," says Smith, "we just leave a sign up on the front door that says strep throat. We always have a case." Teachers don't escape either and for everyone at the center, the road to immunity can be long and hard.

"My first year," says teacher Cathy Elliott, "I had cold on top of cold, mono, tonsilitis. I had to have my tonsils out. And I never get sick. You just get so many things; you get exposed to so much." A child's illness can be particularly tough on parents, for whom an hour spent in the doctor's office or chauffeuring a child home may mean a boss's ire or that much less in weekly pay. "I've called mothers to tell them to come pick up a child and had them dissolve into tears on the phone," Smith says.

Many parents save weekends for family play, at least in principle. "I'm amazed at what some parents say they've done with their children on weekends," Smith says. "A lot of what I do on weekends is just put the house back together, take care of the cars. Some of these parents will go to the Baltimore Aquarium for the whole sunny Saturday and I keep thinking, 'who cut the grass?' "

After lunch, and story time, the blue plastic cots are unfolded and children pull stuffed animals out of a cardboard bin to prepare for nap. Each cot has a fitted bottom sheet and a blanket supplied by parents. The blankets are an array of hand-knitted and crocheted quilts in carefully chosen colors. One by one the children lie down, like knights draped in mother's colors, the proof of her devotion.

Teachers tiptoe from cot to cot in the darkened room and rub children's backs. While most children sleep soundly this day, a little boy raps on his cot mate with the arm of a plastic Ronald McDonald doll. "Why don't you put Ronald McDonald down now," a teacher suggests. "I'm sure he wants to go to sleep."

"He doesn't want to go to sleep," comes the reply. "He wants to punch everyone."

To an adult who cannot enjoy the benefits of a two-hour nap, the afternoon has a surreal, infinite quality. The children are fresh from their cots, the teachers, fading. At 4 p.m. the first parents begin appearing. Many of the women linger to discuss the day with the teachers. Most of the men leave quickly.

Casey Roberts intently watched the parking lot from the playground. By the time her father's foot appeared through the back doorway, she had streaked silently across the clover field and wrapped herself around his legs. "Well, hi there," he said, and ruffled her hair as they left.

The last 10 children were shepherded indoors to wait out the end of the day. They unpacked blocks and buckets of clay. "Lots of times, the parents come in the door and the first thing they say is 'Let's go,' which is not so great," says Diane Gardner, a teachers aide on the late afternoon shift, "but I guess they're tired, too."

At 5:55, Billy's mother entered, looking bushed. She lowered herself carefully into a little red chair at the table where Billy was coloring. "Hello there!" she said brightly, and smiled.

"Hi, Mom!" Billy shouted. "We had fun, we had a contest, we played tug of war!" He glowed, his eyes sparkled. He showed her his crayons, drew the number six, gave a concise history of the tug of war.

After a while, his mother, thinking about dinner and the other two children waiting at home, asked him to put the crayons away. She wandered over to inspect a bean plant on the window ledge. Billy, seemingly tireless, was still talking, and fiddling with his crayons. Rima Vesilind sat down again. She closed her eyes.

"Billy," she said, "can we go home now?"