While a pack of four- and five-year-olds somersault across a tumbling mat in one corner and several three-year-olds bang away on cymbals nearby, the tiny infant somehow sleeps soundly through it all. His crib is a pale blue oasis of quiet in an otherwise loud and reverberating room.
Most of the 80 children who descend on this Kinder-Care center each day are between the ages of 3 and 5. But some arrive wrapped in blue and pink blankets when they're only six weeks old.
In addition to being the largest of the for-profit chains providing day care in the United States and Canada, Kinder-Care is one of the few that offer infant care, at an estimated two-thirds of its 735 ''learning centers.'' But the spaces available in no way meet the local or national demand.
''All our infant slots are filled at the moment, and we have four babies on the waiting list,'' says Sharon Grady, assistant director of the Pembroke Kinder-Care center. ''It's hard to say how many calls we get each day from parents looking for day care for newborns.''
Day-care information and referral services that keep records of incoming calls report that requests for information about infant day care far outnumber those for other age groups. On the West Coast, more than half of the 7,201 calls that came in to San Francisco's BANANAS last year were from parents of infants. Child Care Resource Center in Cambridge, Mass., which serves the metropolitan Boston area, reports that 60 percent of its calls are for infant-toddler care. The Community Coordinated Child Care (4-C) service in Madison, Wis., lists 65 percent of incoming calls as requests for information about infant and toddler care.
''I've even had calls from women who haven't yet conceived,'' says 4-C's Lorna Aaronson. ''There are so many working women who want to start a family but are not in a position to take a lengthy leave of absence, and they have to start planning pretty far ahead for child care.''
A recent study conducted by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization committed to the participation of women in corporate and professional life, found that 68 percent of working women surveyed were back at work four months after their babies were born. For women who want or need to continue with their careers, day care is the only option once maternity benefits run out.
According to the latest Census Bureau statistics, 8 million preschool children are in day care today. While 1 million are enrolled in day-care centers , some 3.5 million stay with relatives during the day, and the remaining 3.5 million are cared for in family day-care homes.
As parents continue to weigh the merits of day-care centers vs. family day-care homes, a number of trends are emerging. Parents are becoming more sophisticated consumers, and day-care providers are generally rising to the new demands these parents are making.
In Madison, Wis., for example, the 4-C staff have prepared a brochure entitled ''Choosing Child Care for Your Infant or Toddler'' to send to anyone who calls with questions. They also sponsor several information sessions each year for parents shopping for various types of day care.
''Most of the parents who show up at the sessions either have very young infants or are expecting to start families soon,'' says Lorna Aaronson. ''They want to know how to go about choosing a day-care center or how to advertise for in-home care. They also want to know how much it's going to cost.
''We encourage couples to start looking for infant day care three or four months in advance of the arrival of their baby, and we tell them they should have their day-care arrangements nailed down three months before the wife plans to return to work.''
The executive director of Summit Child Care Center in Summit, N.J., which is often cited as a model in providing infant care, likewise encourages parents to approach the ''purchase'' of child care with high expectations.
''I tell them they should have a clear understanding of the goals of the programs they're looking into,'' says Robert Lurie, the director. ''They have a right to know what kind of input they'll be entitled to as parents, and what their children will be expected to achieve.''
Although Mr. Lurie says he may be speaking from an idealistic point of view, he contends that the quality of day care is bound to improve in response to parents' demands. ''Increasingly, day-care professionals will have to say to themselves, 'I'm going to provide care in ways that parents want me to,' instead of 'I'm doing parents a favor and they'd better not ask me any questions.' ''
Next: Issues parents should consider when chosing between a day-care center or a family day-care provider.