The population of young children is surging in the District, creating an acute demand for more affordable, quality child care.

Infants and toddlers are the fastest-growing age group in the city, with 26,500 children younger than 3 in 2013, up 26 percent from 2010.

“While it is exciting that so many young people are spending their formative years in D.C., this growth has stretched an already under-capacity system,” said Elizabeth Groginsky, assistant superintendent at the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education, who oversees early learning.

She cited an analysis from 2012 showing that there were enough licensed day-care seats in centers and home-based programs to serve only a quarter of children younger than 3.

The District is a national leader in expanding access to preschool, offering universal full-day programs to 3- and 4-year-olds. Now, Groginsky said, the OSSE’s top priority for early learning is to increase capacity of child care for infants and toddlers.

Challenges with availability, funding and quality of child-care programs for infants and toddlers dominated a public hearing about early education Saturday before the D.C. Council Education Committee.

The cost of child care is a major concern for low-income families who must rely on government subsidies that many providers said do not cover the costs of quality programs. About a quarter of infants and toddlers in the District come from families with incomes below the federal poverty line.

It is also a pressing issue for middle-class families who are paying market rates, which can run about $1,800 a month, among the highest in the country.

“I’m not a parent, but that certainly has my attention,” said D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large).

In all kinds of settings, child-care providers are operating on shoestring budgets, said Judy Berman, deputy director of DC Appleseed, a nonprofit organization that is working with the DC Fiscal Policy Institute to study the actual costs of providing quality care in the District by surveying providers.

The report will not be finished until early next year, but Berman testified Saturday that many child-care providers rely on donated services and materials. They often pay employees very low wages; some operators pay their staff members but not themselves.

“The industry is being subsidized by the owners and employees of child-care organizations,” she said.

The OSSE is also conducting an analysis to estimate the costs of providing quality child care. The child-care subsidy was last increased in 2013.

At the hearing, a few people also weighed in on a bill, sponsored by D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), that would open an early-learning academy in Ward 5 and be named for the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and the late D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. Orange’s bill would establish an all-day, comprehensive, research-based early learning academy for children ages 3 to 5.

But most focused on the large unmet need in funding and programs for the city’s youngest residents.