SIX months ago, the infant care center at Centura Parc, a residential community for young families, resembled many other high-quality centers around the country: bright, clean - and crowded with cribs. Then, in July, a dramatic transformation occurred. The 10 cribs - life's first isolation booths - were taken out and replaced with tiny wood-framed mattresses on the floor. Mirrors and low wooden bars of varying heights were installed in one corner for babies just learning to stand. In another corner, a ``movement area'' was added, featuring a large mat for playtime.
Today this center, the first of its kind on the East Coast and one of only a handful around the world, stands at the forefront of the latest approach to infant care. Called ``Nido,'' the Italian word for nest, the program is based on Montessori method principles.
``Children should be free to move in their environment without being caged in,'' explains Dina Schoenwetter, who spent seven weeks in Denver last summer training to be a Nido teacher. ``The older ones who can crawl know which bed to go to and can crawl into bed when they're tired.'' There are no walkers in the center (``You should not make them walk until they're ready,'' says Astri Vaska, the director) and no infant swings (``A dizzying motion is not good for children - they should be focused on something steady'').
``We're also trying to give them a sense of order, even as young as they are,'' Ms. Schoenwetter adds, pointing to low shelves for toys.
For parents of the eight babies - all of them firstborn - who spend up to 9 or 10 hours a day here, this privileged setting represents a working-mother's dream. The ratio of staff to babies is 1 to 3 - twice as favorable as the 1-to-6 ratio allowed by Florida law. Each day teachers give parents a ``Daily Infant Report'' detailing a baby's schedule, feedings, and development. They also visit each home once a year. Residents pay $95 a week and nonresidents $125 - considerably less than the $150 to $200 a week parents average in cities like Boston.
Yet even these advantages, unimaginable to a majority of working parents, cannot entirely eliminate the anxiety Centura Parc parents, like working parents everywhere, feel when they place their baby in out-of-home care. As Bruce Cherlow, whose six-month-old son has been coming here since he was 10 weeks old, explains, ``Mentally we knew we were not doing anything bad or wrong in putting Alex in day care, because we need two incomes. But emotionally it was very hard at first. Then, as you talk to other people, you realize everyone else is in the same boat.''
In this case, ``everyone else'' includes the estimated 51 percent of families in which the mother returns to work within the first year of a baby's birth. Although a majority of babies in these families are cared for by relatives, friends, nannies, or family day-care providers, infants now account for 30 percent of the 2 million children in day-care centers around the country.
This increase in out-of-home care has given rise to one of the most emotional questions of the 1970s and '80s: What are the effects of child care on infants?
On one side of the debate, child development experts like Jay Belsky, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, argue that babies who spend more than 20 hours a week in nonmaternal care risk emotional problems later. Others disagree, saying existing studies do not show negative consequences.
Today, Edward Zigler, director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University, characterizes infant care as a combination of ``some good news and some bad news.''
The good news, he says, appears in a consensus statement prepared this fall by 20 authorities on infant care. ``What we essentially reported was that the developing child needs environmental nutrients - affection, attention, care,'' says Dr. Zigler. ``If the child receives them at home, he or she will develop optimally. If the child receives them outside, he or she will develop optimally. If the care is of really good quality, there's not much to worry about.''
But then there is the bad news, made public in October in what Zigler calls ``the most important child care study of the decade,'' the National Day Care Staffing Study. ``Unfortunately, they discovered that the quality of care for many infants and older preschoolers can only be described as very poor.''
Contributing to that poor quality are a high staff turnover rate - 41 percent a year - and near poverty-level wages, averaging $9,363 for a full-time worker.
Infant care is also hard to find. Among the 340 licensed child-care centers here in Broward County, for instance, only 40 to 45 accept infants, according to Judith LaVorgna, vice president of the Dr. Joseph P. Randazzo Schools, which operate the Centura Parc center.
IN addition, there is no way to license love. For parents, that important ingredient can sometimes seem elusive as they search for good infant care.
Lori and David Noel of Roseville, Minn., screened 40 family day-care homes before finding one where they felt comfortable leaving their infant son, Brett.
``I made a full-time job out of looking,'' says Ms. Noel, a marketing communications supervisor for 3M Corporation. ``We had a long list of things that were important to us: Do they have a clean house? A safe house? The right insurance? Are they licensed? Do they share our values? Is her discipline similar to what I would feel is appropriate? Is the atmosphere good?''
Starting with a list of area family day-care homes, Ms. Noel also answered ads in community papers, placed an ad of her own, and called her church secretary for leads.
Her first step was to interview candidates on the telephone. When someone sounded promising, her husband took time off from work and the couple went to visit.
``The first place was terrible,'' Noel recalls. ``She sounded fine on the phone, but she was in her pajamas, lounging on the couch, and drinking a Coke at 10 a.m. A baby was lying on the floor on a blanket. The dog was sitting on it. She told me nobody smoked, but it smelled like it. When I asked, `What do the kids eat?' she said, `Oh, SpaghettiO's and fried eggs.' It was the stereotypical bad experience.''
Their second stop wasn't much better. ``She didn't even look at Brett,'' says Mr. Noel. ``She didn't want to hold him or pick him up. She only wanted to talk about money and vacations and who paid for diapers and formula.''
But the couple's persistence paid off. Today, two years later, Brett still goes to the same family day-care home. Next spring he will be joined there by the Noels' second child, due in January.
OTHER parents find creative solutions elsewhere. Near downtown Minneapolis, an infant day-care center called the Oak and Acorn operates in the lower level of a nursing home. Every afternoon staff members take their young charges upstairs to a large living room, where residents of the nursing home hold the babies, play with them, and feed them. This approach is so unusual that the directors receive frequent inquiries from other child-care centers around the country.
Ernest Williams, whose 10-month-old daughter, Joy, participates in the program, says, ``We've never had a place like this before where our children had a chance to mingle with, and be cared for by, seniors. That's a real special thing. They mix so well, really.''
But simply creating more programs and opening more high-quality centers will not solve a problem that troubles some child-care experts: benign neglect on the part of working parents.
``There's a whole group of parents for whom work may be more important than raising their baby, but they're not yet able to say that,'' says Dr. LaVorgna. ``They don't abuse their children, they don't beat them, and they don't neglect them in a way for any state agency to get involved. But they leave them in child care all day, pick them up, go to McDonald's, eat on the way home, then leave them in evening care while they play tennis.
``Some parents will spare no amount of money to cover the guilt. They know this isn't the best thing for the child. But they can say, `I have the most wonderful au pair.' Or, `I'm so lucky to have a wonderful evening-care program.'''
Janet Reno, a state attorney for Dade County, Fla., describes another scenario where absentee parents have less choice: ``The mother who is a lawyer with a deadline goes back to the office at 8 o'clock. The father who is a doctor goes back to the hospital to deliver a baby. They love their kid more than anything, but they're not there at 9 p.m. We've got to create a world of work and family that is compatible. Every major corporation has to care.''
As the '80s draw to a close, evidence of corporate caring is mounting. A growing number of companies now offer parental leave, child-care, and flexible schedules.
At Mona, Meyer, & McGrath, a public relations firm in Minneapolis, four women officers had babies within two months of each other this fall. ``That elevated the issue of maternity leave to a point where it could not be ignored,'' says Sarah Gavin, an executive vice president on leave with her third baby.
Until she returns to work in February, Ms. Gavin is maintaining a part-time schedule at home with the help of a fax machine installed by her employers. In an upstairs bedroom, a computer shares space with a crib and diapers for four-week-old Ryan and crayons for her 5-year-old and 2-year-old.
Yet at-home offices and part-time schedules are still privileges accorded to only a tiny percentage of working parents. The rest must often hurry back to work within weeks of a baby's birth, settling for whatever patchwork care arrangements they can find or afford.
WHETHER the children of the '90s are haves or have-nots - born by design to the monogrammed silver-spoon set or without premeditation to the ``underclass'' - a variety of challenges face their parents.
For established middle-class families, the questions will continue to be: What more can a nurturing father do to relieve a nurturing mother? What more can nurturing corporations do in the way of day care and flextime?
For single-parent families, living hand to mouth, the questions are brutally basic: Where are the safety nets for now? And where are the sustained social programs to enable the poor to become self-sufficient?
There is general agreement among child advocates and legislators that ``the next decade will be the decade family policy will be debated out in this country,'' in the words of Elaine Zimmerman, a program director for the Connecticut Commission on Children.
Already that debate has divided policymakers. The $1.75 billion Act for Better Child Care remains stalled in Congress because of disagreements over funding, jurisdiction, and the role of the federal government. In addition to tax credits and refunds, the bill would subsidize low-income parents with children in day care. According to a US Census Bureau survey, poor parents spend 22 percent of their income for child care.
At the same time, the Family and Medical Leave Act is expected to come up for a vote this winter. The bill would give 10 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to parents to care for a newborn or newly adopted child. Seventeen states already provide some form of infant-care leave, according to Zigler.
Such pragmatic solutions have a difficult enough time achieving a political consensus. The philosophical questions of child-rearing divide parents into countless splinter groups. Marlene Johnson, the lieutenant governor of Minnesota and an advocate for family issues, says, ``We can't get into deciding there is only one right way to raise kids. If there is, we're all in big trouble, because there's no one model.''
Whatever the models for the '90s, the well-being of the family, right from the start, is perceived as synonymous with the well-being of society. ``This is the beginning,'' says Ms. Vaska at Centura Parc. ``If it doesn't start out positive and good for the children here, then what?
LaVorgna concurs: ``We have to look at the institutions raising America's children. Children can't write their own story yet. But they'll tell it when they grow up. It's going to be a pretty interesting story. The responsibility for making it turn out well is ours, and it's now.''