WOODBURY, N.J. (AP) _ The participants in a three-way custody battle for the child whose father allegedly tried to sell her for $100,000 had better be prepared to go to trial quickly to settle the dispute, a judge says.

During a closed pre-adoption hearing in Gloucester County Family Court here Thursday, Judge George Stanger consolidated the petitions of the three parties seeking custody of 4-year-old Rachel Rauser, according to a statement issued by the judge.

Rachel's aunt, grandparents and stepmother are challenging each other for custody of the child.

''The natural love we can give her, no one else can,'' said Ruby Rauser of Elmer, whose unmarried daughter, Michal, gave birth to Rachel and later died in a traffic accident.

Rachel's father, Joseph Waltman, of Alloway Township, is awaiting trial on charges he offered to sell the girl to another of the Rausers' daughters, Deborah Stern, and her husband, Gary, of Sunrise, Fla.

Waltman's estranged wife, Cindy Sullivan-Waltman of Salem, has been awarded temporary custody of the girl and is seeking permanent custody, as are the Rausers and the Sterns.

''We're never giving up. We're never backing down,'' Mrs. Rauser's husband, John, said after the hearing.

Stanger, citing the best interests of Rachel, ordered the attorneys in the case to be prepared for a trial at the earliest possible time, the judge's statement said. Another hearing in the dispute is set for May 19.

The judge did not rule on efforts by the Sterns and the Rausers to get visitation rights with the girl.

''We just hope to see her as soon as possible,'' Mrs. Stern said.

A Bergen County Superior Court judge awarded temporary custody of the girl to the to the Sterns after Waltman was arrested in March and charged with offering to sell Rachel to them.

But the court order was changed to give custody to Ms. Sullivan-Waltman. The Sterns, who had taken the child with them to Florida, later were indicted on charges of ignoring the judge's order to return the child to her stepmother.

After the child's mother died in 1984, Waltman had obtained custody in a bitter legal battle with the Rausers. When she turns 18, Rachel will begin receiving payments on a $3 million insurance settlement arising from the auto accident in which her mother died.

The Rausers had been fighting to regain custody of Rachel when Waltman was arrested. A few weeks later, the Sterns said they would also seek custody, which Mrs. Stern's parents said was a surprise.

''It hurt us. We were utterly shocked,'' Rauser said Thursday. ''We don't feel bitter against them. We're disappointed about what they're doing.''

Rauser and his wife ignored Mrs. Stern and another daughter, Rebecca Rauser of Flanders, in the halls of the courthouse Thursday before the hearing, although the four later left the courthouse together.

On Tuesday, the Sterns surrendered to New Jersey authorities and pleaded innocent to charges of interference with custody of a child and criminal contempt. They were released on their own recognizance.