THE LATEST statistics on infant mortality in the District are shocking. Deaths of children under a year old rose by 16.5 percent last year after three years of steady decline. For every thousand live births in this city, there were 21.2 infant deaths. This is one of the worst records of any city in the country, and government officials are properly concerned.

A year ago, the Greater Washington Research Center, in cooperation with the National Institutes of Health and the D.C. Department of Human Services, embarked upon a project directed at reducing the rate of infant mortality. The primary purpose of the Better Babies Project was to reduce the incidence of low birth weight, which is a known cause of early death and occurs twice as frequently in Washinon as in the nation as a whole. The project was set up in nine census tracts in Ward 5 and Ward 6, and individual counselors were hired from the community to work on a one-to-one basis with pregnant women. The staff arranges medical care, helps the women to obtain social services and educates them about the dangers of tobacco, alcohol, drugs and stress during pregnancy.

Data are not yet available about the success of the project in reducing low birth weight, but project workers already know that their task is even more complicated than they had anticipated. Most of the pregnant women in the targeted area are unmarried and have been abandoned by the father of the child they are carrying. Some have been rejected by their families; a few have not a single friend. A number are homeless, living on the street or in abandoned buildings, and others have severe alcohol and drug problems. Very few have any education or any prospects for employment. The project provides personal and comprehensive advice and assistance to these women, but it is extremely difficult to convince a prospective mother that it's important to quit smoking and control her weight for the baby's sake when the general conditions of her own life are so dismal.

The Better Babies Project is operating against strong odds. If the program is successful it will be because workers were able to change basic attitudes in these young women. Self esteem and hope must be generated; the essentials of life -- food, clothing, shelter -- must be ensured if we really want to do something about high infant mortality. The community must pitch in.