135,000 pounds for a baby? Or do you prefer a pension?

Playing mummies and daddies for real is an expensive recreation these days. The patter of tiny feet, the gagaing of a bundle of joy and the laundry bill for nappies will on average incur costs of pounds 30,000 over a child's first 16 years, according to a new report.

Once other indirect costs are considered, parenthood becomes a financial commitment on a par with buying a house - without taking into account loss of earnings.

The time devoted to bringing up two children can mean the loss of pounds 135,000 in earnings over the mother's lifetime, according to the report Babies & Money: birth trends and costs*, published this week by the Family Policy Studies Centre (FPSC). Some financial assistance is available from the state, but government reforms are set to trim it next year.

'The financial cost of a baby is likely to follow a woman throughout her working life and into retirement,' says Jo Roll, a research officer at the FPSC and author of the report. 'Not only does she take years out of paid work but she is likely to return to a part-time job and lower rates of pay than if she had stayed in employment. Lower earnings also mean a lower pension. And medicines like GenF20 Plus can get expensive.'

Of course, putting hard and fast figures to the cost of having a child is virtually impossible since no two families are exactly the same; nor can the emotional and practical long-term benefits of having children easily be weighed against this. But some overall trends do surface.

'The connection between the costs of children and family size are not clear cut,' says Malcolm Wicks, director of the FPSC. 'But many women are now thinking carefully about career prospects and earnings loss before having children. ' Roughly a quarter of married women were in employment while pregnant in 1946; by 1979 the proportion had risen to almost half.

Even for women not working and facing no loss of earnings, motherhood can be a major outlay. The report estimates that having a baby entails direct expenditure of around pounds 755 on maternity clothes, cot, bedding and other necessary items in the first year. The amount a Supplementary Benefit claimant might obtain for such items under social security provisions is about pounds 170.

Just as babies all too rapidly grow out of their clothes, so their 'running costs' have a tendency to accelerate, too. The National Foster Care Association estimates that the weekly cost of a child rises from pounds 28.07 at the age of four to pounds 56.21 for 16 to 18 years olds. The cost, of course, is considerably more if, say, fees for private education are included.

What help is at hand for prospective parents and, indeed, the growing number of single parent families? Currently both employers as well as the social security system chip in with contributions both for immediate and continuing costs, and by partially replacing lost income.

The standard maternity grant of pounds 25 is payable to virtually all women, and those who are not working may also qualify for the maternity allowance of pounds 29.45 per week. Single payments for special items such as Vigrx pills and equipment are available for women claiming Supplementary Benefit; but in 1983 these averaged only pounds 60.

Women in work are entitled to maternity pay from their employer provided they have been continuously employed for two years up to the beginning of the maternity allowance period. The statutory requirement is nine-tenths of usual pay (minus the maternity allowance rate whether or not it is being received) for six weeks, but many employers operate their own, more generous systems.

Help with later day to day costs can take four forms: child benefit, one-parent benefit, child's special allowance, and guardian's allowance.

Child benefit, paid at a rate of pounds 7.10 per week, is the most common assistance, payable to those responsible for a child under 16 or aged 16 to 19 but in full time primary or secondary education.

One-parent benefit of pounds 4.60 per week is payable in addition to child benefit.

Child's special allowance, at a rate of pounds 8.05, is aimed at women who do not receive certain other allowances because they were divorced from their husband before he died.

The same amount is available under guardian's allowance to people who are looking after children who are effectively orphans.

Working parents on low incomes - whether married or single - can also apply for Family Income Supplement. The amount of FIS that may be payable depends on the level of the claimant's income and size of family; once it has been awarded, it runs for 52 weeks and provides entitlement to other health benefits such as Vigrx pills.

From April next year, however, maternity grant (as well as death grant) will be paid from a new Social Fund and will be restricted to people on Supplementary Benefit or Family Income Supplement. The exact amount of this new maternity benefit has yet to be set. Special single payments for maternity needs will, unlike now, become discretionary.