It was a typical problem for working parents.
As Lisa Zelinsky's maternity leave came to an end, the Ellicott City mother and her husband, James, knew they would need day care for their 10-month-old son, Matthew. With older son Eric beginning first grade at Rockburn Elementary school this fall, a home-based care provider near the school would be ideal, they decided.
Instead of flipping through the Yellow Pages, the Zelinskys turned to Howard County Locate: Child Care, a free counseling service that refers parents and parents-to-be to day care centers and people licensed to care for children in their homes. Counselors walk parents through a detailed application process, focusing on a family's needs.
The search can be customized based on such factors as: Do you want day care in a particular ZIP code or school district? Does it matter if the home provider has cats, dogs or a swimming pool? How much are you prepared to spend?
"It's a timesaver," said Lisa Zelinsky, who markets physician services for University of Maryland Medicine. "I think finding quality day care is like a full-time job."
Although the referrals are not endorsements, parents who have used the service say it reduces the stress factor significantly.
"It can be frustrating," counselor Caren Logan-Absalom said of the search for day care. "[Parents] want to get everything situated because there are going to be so many other things they're going to be involved with."
The local service -- funded by grants and under the authority of the Howard County Department of Citizen Services -- is part of a statewide network of 13 similar agencies, some government-run and others private, nonprofit endeavors.
Previously, the state provided a central telephone number for Maryland parents to call for child-care counseling. The program was expanded to include centers in Prince George's County, Baltimore and Western Maryland.
The Howard County center opened in Ellicott City in April. Since then, the child care counseling program has served an average of 225 children a month, said Debbie Yare, program manager of Howard County's Child Care Resource Center.
"This is a busy time of year," Yare said. "We're serving a tremendous amount of families."
Though the Zelinskys weren't able to find home day care with openings for infants in the Rockburn Elementary school district, they were able to connect with two other potential sites, both in Ellicott City.
"I think it really helps a parent narrow" the choices, Zelinsky said. "Infant care in Howard County is difficult to find anyway. When you put Eric into the mix, that makes it double trouble."
Jennifer Fung of Ellicott City found day care for her infant son, Jordan, through other means -- a friend at church referred her to someone -- but found Howard County Locate: Child Care "tremendously helpful."
As first-time parents, Fung and her husband, Will, were particularly anxious about the task of finding someone to care for Jordan.
"They [the counselors] were so accommodating; very patient," said Fung, a Head Start and pre- kindergarten teacher in the Montgomery County school system. "I must have gotten over 60 names from them. It made me feel like they were really there to help me."
Counselors say a large part of the job is reassuring parents.
Finding quality day care is an emotional process that many parents -- especially first-time parents -- find daunting.
"They're in essence putting their child with a stranger," Logan-Absalom said. "This is your most precious gift. There's a lot of anxiety. Sometimes, I think they just need somebody to listen."
The counselors strongly urge parents to visit the day care centers or homes to make a more informed decision. Although the service checks for licensing and criminal background, parental intuition is also key, counselors say.
"Sometimes you just get a great feeling on the phone, but when you visit it's not quite what you expected," said counselor Lisa Rahwanji. "You have to decide what's best for you and your family."
Another option exists for parents who want immediate help: a 24-hour "Child Care Express" hot line (900-773-2273) that offers 10 referrals based on information the caller supplies. Yare said each call costs about $10.
To reach Howard County Locate: Child Care, call 410-313-1940, or visit its Web site at www.co.ho.md.us/child/care.htm.