THREE years ago Gloria Roberts found herself a widow with the responsibility of raising her four-month-old granddaughter. To earn money, she began caring for neighborhood children in her home. She turned her spacious family room into a playroom, acquired a license from the state, and now operates a day-care home that accommodates seven children, including two babies.
Mrs. Roberts, of suburban Chicago, is part of an emerging trend toward home-based child care. Of the 7 to 81/2 million children in day care in the United States, well over half are in home-based day care, according to Lori Weinstein of the Children's Foundation in Washington, D.C. The percentage of infants in home-based care runs even higher, she says, at roughly 90 percent.
Why has home day care become such a large part of the day-care picture?
''It is absolutely a reaction to the desperate state of child care in this country,'' Ms. Weinstein says. ''There aren't nearly enough child-care slots in this country.''
Cost is another factor. Day-care centers operating infant-care programs can charge as much as $200 a week, Ms. Weinstein notes, and with day-care center staffs that turn over rapidly and are sometimes short-handed, the choice of home day care often hinges on basic family values.
''Mothers returning to work with very young children want to leave their children in a homelike environment,'' Ms. Weinstein says. ''They want to provide a nurturing relationship between a child and a provider, and family day care suits their needs.''
Mrs. Roberts feels that she's providing a nurturing atmosphere in her home. All the children call her ''Mimi'' and get to know her as ''that other mommy,'' she says. Even though the children get to roam and play freely most of the day, Mrs. Roberts is strict about nutrition, behavior, and naps, and she works closely with parents on these issues.
Judy Tschurgi, a supervisor at Bell Labs in Naperville, Ill., has been very pleased with home-based care. Her year-old daughter, Madeline, has been in Gloria Roberts's home for six months. Mrs. Roberts fulfilled her list of requirements, which included location, sensitivity to nutrition, the encouragement of play, and flexibility about time.
Parents may prefer home-based care, but they often can't find it. The reason, says Lori Weinstein, is that 85 percent of family day care is underground.
''By underground I mean they're not participating in any regulatory system. The very strict standards of licensing often serve to deter and to discourage providers from getting themselves licensed or regulated.''
Most states have a licensing system that requires an extensive interview, home inspection, and adherence to strict nutrition, health, and safety regulations. Licensing also gives an agency the right to conduct drop-in inspections and act on complaints. Several states have softened the demands of licensing, however, by adopting a registration system that drops inspections and relies on the day-care provider's word that her home is up to standard.
Ms. Weinstein prefers registration of day-care homes to licensing, because it promotes training and, more importantly, parental monitoring. She is concerned that parents automatically associate a license with a good day-care home. Trust in licensing is misplaced, she says, because budget cutbacks have curtailed many agencies' ability to inspect day-care homes.
Nancy Travis, director of the Southern states office of the Save the Children Federation, agrees that parents need to be better consumers of home-based care. Focus on the day-care provider, she advises. Does the person treat the children in his or her home lovingly? Are the provider's child-rearing attitudes like yours? Is the home relatively clean and free of hazards? How does he or she respond to a child's special needs? Ms. Travis also recommends that parents request references and shop around before making a decision.
To that list, Ms. Weinstein would add another suggestion: Be respectful. ''A lot of parents continue to view family day-care providers out there as baby sitters.'' The assumption, Ms. Travis says, is that these people, usually women, are low-income people who can't get other jobs. The truth is, they're a diverse group including all ages, races, and educational backgrounds. Their motivation for starting a home day-care service is usually economic, Ms. Weinstein says, but the love of children is also there.
As the number of home day-care providers has grown, so has their desire for professionalism. A number of home day-care associations have organized around the country, providing their members with support, information, and training. Lori Weinstein directs the National Family Day Care Project for the Children's Foundation and assists associations in getting under way. In the South, Nancy Travis's Save the Children office is training and even recruiting home day-care providers.
Both women say more training and organizing are needed in the field, but they are heartened by the results they've seen so far. Ms. Travis says she has noticed that in their ads, day-care providers are no longer calling themselves ''baby sitters.'' ''I think fostering that kind of attitude affects the care they give children. I really do.''