CAN THERE be a more terrible experience for a mother than not knowing if her child is dead or alive? For years, that was the fate of parents of children given up for adoption. But the loss felt was often so profound that today, many such mothers are asking for a little information and a photograph to preserve their memories of the children they had to give up.

Although adoption has fallen out of favour in the past 25 years, thousands of mothers are still affected by the experience. Many gave up their children in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1968, there were 27,000 adoptions; in 1992 there were 8,000, but only 960 were babies, and the majority were adoptions by step-parents.

Although natural parents have no legal right to information, their children do have. The 1975 Children Act gave adopted children the right to gain access to their original birth certificates, and adoption societies often help provide additional information. Natural parents can place details on the national contact register, in the hope that their offspring will search it for information. Some adoption agencies and local authorities will also help trace a child from their records.

Not every organisation, however, is sympathetic. Westminster Council has so far refused to co-operate with parents' requests for information. It has 25,000 adoption records - one of the largest archives in the country - after taking over the papers of several now defunct adoption agencies. It is now inviting views from those affected.

SHEILA'S STORY: For years I have had a dreadful feeling of guilt: I got pregnant; I gave away my baby to somebody else.

I was 19 when I had my baby in 1978 in Dublin. I was from a nice, middle- class Catholic family and at university. Although my friends were helpful, my boyfriend didn't want to know and my parents were horrified.

When she was born, I wanted to keep her, but I left her behind in the hospital after five days. She was there in the nursery with row upon row of babies. I had no photograph of her; nothing. I looked at her and called her Sheila, although, of course, the adoptive parents called her something completely different.

I'd asked my parents to help me bring her up in the family, but they refused, and once I'd left her, I couldn't go back, I couldn't face it.

I would always get very upset in December because it was the month of her birthday, but over the years I suffered from depression a lot, and it got worse and worse.

About three years ago it really took hold and I went to see a therapist and I realised from those sessions it was the baby that was causing my grief. There were so many emotions to deal with, and this depression can really undermine you. I'm sure she is the reason why I have never had any other children.

It was at the same time that I joined the group for birth mothers, the North London Natural Parents Support Group - the best thing I ever did.

First I got the birth certificate from the registrar in Ireland and then wrote to the adoption agency for the papers. I had to write several times. I also asked for information and a picture.

When I got them and the photograph - I just burst into tears. I was happy, but there was so much regret too. She looked so like me.

The main thing was that she was alive and well, and that the adoptive parents felt I could have a photo, although I don't know if they told her that I had been in contact with the agency.

But the thing is, it doesn't stop there. You just want to know more. You need to know more. She is 16 now. If she wants to get in contact when she is older, then the agency will set that up.

I have a general idea where she is, and the photograph, and Ireland is a small place. But I wouldn't just turn up. It would be too shocking, too dangerous and damaging to a potential relationship.

For a long time mothers like me have been a silent minority. It is not unreasonable to want to know if your child is alive, well and healthy.

DOREEN'S STORY: Nobody will tell me if my daughter is dead, or what has become of her. I've not seen her for 35 years, since I left the mother- and-baby home. Her father was a married man, and I was living at home with my elderly parents. They were supportive, but it just seemed inevitable that I should have the baby adopted, no question about it at all, though I was 25.

She was born at Queen Charlotte's Hospital and I called her Paula. We lived at the mother and baby home for six weeks, so I had her for quite a while, but they wouldn't allow me to breastfeed. Then one day I heard a taxi draw up outside and I was told it was time to hand her over.

The matron got in the taxi with her and took her to the National Children's Adoption Association, where the parents were waiting. That day I had to get out of the home.

One day while we were at the home, I took her out for a walk in a big pram and telephoned my parents to tell them I couldn't give her up, but even while I was doing it, I knew it was hopeless.

Once she'd gone I had nothing left, not even one picture of her. Three months ago I went back to Putney and found the mother and baby home, although it's now flats. It was a comfort to see it, to remember where I'd cared for her.

After Paula was taken away, I changed my life. I left my parents' home and changed my job. I was still seeing her father, and four years later, in 1963, we had another daughter.

Julie was one of the reasons why I decided I had to find out what happened to my first daughter, in case one day she just turned up out of the blue.

It took me a long time to tell Julie she had a sister, but once I did she was thrilled - thrilled not to be an only child. She feels as strongly as I do that we need to find Paula. Since then I've found out I could have further non-identifying information and a photograph, but since then the adoption agency has closed down and its records have been taken over by Westminster Council.

A year ago I had a meeting with Westminster social services, but they won't provide any more information. They have 25,000 records and they just don't seem to know how to cope with them.

My only alternative might be to go to court and try and get the birth certificate released. What I'm looking for is information, not to cause trouble for my daughter and her family.

Sometimes I have to remind myself why I did it, that the world was so different then. You cannot imagine the shame of an illegitimate child. Not a day goes by when I don't think about her.