The worst 20 minutes of my life

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Thirty seconds was all it took to turn a shopping trip into my worst nightmare.

Standing in Toys R Us, my husband spotted a work colleague and turned to say hello. I also turned to say hello. And the moment I turned back, our two-year-old son was gone. Just like that.

At first I did a quick dash around the aisle, calling his name, expecting to find him crouched down on the floor playing with a toy. But he wasn't. He wasn't in any of the aisles. I screamed and screamed and screamed his name. My husband called store staff over and they started searching the aisles. The manager checked out back. The shopping centre security guards were immediately notified.

We looked, we moved toys from shelves and we kept screaming his name. But my son was gone. It felt like he had vanished into thin air.

I was seven months pregnant at the time, and after what felt like an eternity of searching I fell in a collapsed heap in the entrance of Toys R Us. The overwhelming waves of nausea and panic rose in my throat. I held onto my unborn baby, rocking backwards and forwards in a numb terror. The only thoughts racing through my mind were that someone had taken him. Someone must have taken him.

Almost 20 minutes after I'd last seen him it felt like the escalating panic was putting me in the early throes of labour. Then I looked up and saw a blurred figure coming towards the store: it was a security guard holding my little son in his arms.

I cannot describe the rush of relief. It was as if he'd been born into my arms all over again. It was a moment in our lives I will never forget, a moment I still say my prayers in gratitude for.

That day my son had wandered out of the toy store and was found by security almost half a shopping centre away.

It's estimated that 35,000 people are reported missing each year in Australia. This equates to one person every 15 minutes. Reassuringly, statistics also show that 99.5 per cent of those missing are found again. But until they are, the fear and panic can be the most terrifying.

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Wendy, another mum, can understand the feeling - she lost her daughter and niece during the busy school holidays at Scienceworks museum. "We were looking in the museum shop and when I turned around, they were gone. I was terrified," she says. "I thought that an eight-year-old and a six-year-old would remember what to do if they got lost, but turns out they did the very thing they shouldn't have done."

When the girls became separated from her, instead of waiting inside, they'd left and were walking around the side streets where they had parked, trying to find the car.

Luckily Wendy found them before the situation could get any worse. "Now, every time I go out somewhere with kids, I take a few minutes to remind them what to do if they get lost," says Wendy. "We look around and point out how to identify people who could help them, remind them to stay put and to NEVER go out to the car park without me!"

No parent plans or anticipates losing their child. Yet when it does happen, what should you do other than panic and fear the worst?

Acting quickly and with a clear head will be imperative. Contact the store, the main office or security immediately.

And while these situations cannot be anticipated, it does not hurt to be prepared:

If you are going into a place where children are likely to be lost, like an amusement park or the Royal Melbourne Show or Easter Show, write your phone number on your child's arm.

If you have a little one prone to being a runner, perhaps consider a child harness.

For older children, set rules, guidelines and action plans beforehand, and repetitively go over them and over and over them.

No parent ever imagines losing sight of their child until it happens - and then it becomes a living nightmare. Ever since losing my son that day in the shopping centre I am always on the lookout for lost children, swooping in and taking them to security immediately - because I know that somewhere out there is a frantic parent, fearing the worst.

Josefa Pete is a writer and mother to two boys. You can follow her on Facebook or read her blog.