Experts credit the economic boom, the cultural influence of America's growing Hispanic population and the entry into parenthood of a generation of latchkey kids.
Of the 41.8 million kids under 15 who lived with two parents last year, more than 25 percent had mothers who did not work and stayed home, according to a Census Bureau report.
That was up from 23 percent, or 9.4 million children, in such situations in 1994, a bureau analyst said.
Full-time stay-at-home dads took care of 189,000 kids in 2002, up 18 percent.
Heather Stergos, 29, of St. Louis, quit her job as a child-care worker six months ago so she could stay home with her own newborn full time. She brought her infant son to work with her for four months before deciding she wanted to spend more time with him.
While her family's budget is a little tighter, Stergos says she is happy with the decision and plans to stay home until son Charlie is in grade school.
"There was a lot of 'Oh my God, why would you want to do that?' I got a lot more negative responses from friends, though my family was very supportive," Stergos said Monday.
Both she and her husband were raised by stay-at-home moms. "It was more beneficial than having someone else take care of your kids," she said.
Kelly Miller, a stay-at-home mother of a 4-year-old daughter and 16-month-old son, decided to quit working full time as a marketing director after giving birth to her second child. Miller, 29, of Fairfax, Va., said the cultural perception that raising kids full time doesn't equate to work still exists, though not as widely as a decade ago.
With unemployment low in the late 1990s, many companies offered more work-from-home options or extended leave as enticements to retain qualified female workers, said Joanne Brundage, executive director of Mothers & More, an organization for mothers who have adjusted their careers to raise children.
But Brundage said the flailing economy of recent years may have forced more women back into the work force, either because their spouse has been laid off or companies have cut back on benefits.
High birth rates and increased immigration helped the Hispanic population more than double in the United States during the 1990s. That may have also influenced the trend, as some Latino cultures place more emphasis on women staying home to raise children, said William O'Hare, a researcher with a children's advocacy group, the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Many younger women who now have kids grew up when placing a child in day care was the norm, said Susan De Ritis, spokeswoman for the Fairfax, Va.-based Family and Home Network, which represents stay-at-home parents.
"Those children that were in day care growing up are now becoming mothers themselves, and now they don't want their kids to become day care children," she said. "Their mom may not have been home when they got home from school, so perhaps they want something different for their family."
The Census Bureau also reported that 55 percent of women who gave birth between July 1999 and July 2000 returned to the labor force within a year of having their babies.
That was down from a record high of 59 percent the last time the survey was conducted in 1998.
Other findings in the latest census report:
By Genaro C. Armas