DAYCARE AT AGENCIES HELPS CRADLE NEW MOMS

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Before Vicki Buck gave birth to her son, Eli, she thought she would be able to put him in daycare when he was 6 weeks old. After he was born 6 months ago, she quickly realized that would be difficult emotionally.

"I was naive," she said recently. "He was so little. I couldn't just drop him off somewhere."

Luckily for Ms. Buck, she works at T3, an Austin, Texas, advertising agency that takes a rare approach to employee child-rearing. After her six-week maternity leave ended, Ms. Buck brought Eli to work with her every day for two months. While she worked at her desk, Eli slept in a swing-bassinet behind her. When he got hungry, she fed him. When he needed to be changed, she changed him. When he needed to be held-or she wanted to hold him-she held him.

"It made all the difference in the world," Ms. Buck said.

T3 President Gay Gaddis knew it would. When she gave birth to her children more than a decade ago, she struggled with the same feelings. "The first few months can be really traumatic for a mother, especially a first-time mother," Ms. Gaddis said. While Ms. Gaddis didn't get the chance to bring her babies to work, she has long wanted to make that possible for others. When T3 moved into bigger offices a year ago, she did.

"T3 & Under" is situated on the first floor of a carriage house behind the rambling 84-year-old house that serves as T3's office. New moms can sit at two desks that occupy only a small part of a large room with a big window. The rest of the room is available for cribs, swings, blankets and toys.

So far, three employees have spent time working in T3 & Under with their babies. "It's amazingly not disruptive," Ms. Gaddis said.

In fact, it's been quite productive, from an agency president's point of view.

Ms. Buck said she would have taken a longer maternity leave rather than put her baby in daycare after six weeks. Rena Sehlke, another T3 & Under mother, said she would have, too. For the modest price of being flexible, Ms. Gaddis said, "I'm able to get my people [back to work] sooner."

T3 mothers acknowledge that they work less effectively with a baby in the room than they did before becoming moms. But they and Ms. Gaddis feel they're less distracted than they would be if they had to work and worry about a 6-week-old in daycare.

T3 & Under is a concept that probably works best at a small agency. With 28 employees-seven of them mothers-T3 feels like an extended family, Ms. Buck said.

That was true at Gardner, Geary, Coll & Young from 1990-93, when the small San Francisco agency had a daycare center. The shop provided the space, and a group of employee-mothers arranged for a caregiver. The program ended when the children entered preschool.

"It was very successful, and we would do it again," said Karen Young, principal and director of account management. "I was able to go back to work after nine weeks, breast-feed my daughter and not feel the incredible pull of wanting to be with my baby."

Though T3 and Gardner are more flexible than most, other agencies are discovering the benefits of flexibility. At GSD&M, an Austin agency with some 300 employees, workers are accustomed to hearing the occasional baby's wail. GSD&M allows mothers and fathers to bring children with them to work when babysitting or illness problems arise.

Flexibility opens up more daycare options for employees, too, Ms. Gaddis said. It allows them to weigh factors other than hours of availability when picking a caregiver.

And it's not so bad for co-workers, she added. Ms. Sehlke and Ms. Buck said co-workers frequently stopped by T3 & Under to play with their sons and allow them to finish up projects.

"There's nothing better when you're really stressed out than coming over and holding a baby for 5 minutes," Ms. Gaddis said.

Alice Z. Cuneo contributed to this story.

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