WHILE the rest of us were giving a collective sigh of relief as Farrah Quli and her abductor were found at Limerick, Ireland, on Saturday, another thought was running through Sally Cody's mind: 'There but for the grace of God go I'

Like the friendly 23-year-old who apparently escaped the country with Farrah after posing as a childminder, Sally Cody (not her real name) would never be suspected of being a baby snatcher. Bubbly, middle-aged, with a penchant for cuddly Beatrix Potter jumpers, this former nurse is the sort of woman that friends like to leave their children with. Only she would rather they didn't. Just waiting outside a post office playing with the baby while mum buys stamps inside can have Sally using every last ounce of will-power to fight the impulse to wheel away the pram and never return.

Sally, 41, longs for a baby with an intensity most of us cannot imagine. Sometimes she deliberately avoids the supermarket, a baby snatcher's paradise with smiling babies sitting unattended in shopping trolleys. Sometimes she has wheeled away a trolley with the beaming child inside. Nearly always she leaves the child at the checkout or in another shopping aisle, but once she stole a red-haired boy and took him around a seaside resort for three hours, enacting her motherhood fantasy, before she left him safely in Mothercare. At the time she didn't think about his panic-stricken mother.

She knows as you are reading this that she is probably incurring disdain. Three years ago, if she had been reading this about another woman she would have shared those feelings. 'My reaction if anyone had told me they wanted to steal babies would have been to back off,' she explains. 'But having been through it myself, it's reversed everything. Now I think, 'Have you been through similar circumstances to me, is this why you're doing it?' '

Some women are driven to snatch a stranger's baby because they had an emotionally damaged childhood or are trying to replace a child they have lost or can never have. Sally's story isn't easy to listen to, but the episodes are crucial to understanding the history.

Sally was sexually abused by her father and when he died her elder brother took over where her father had left off. At 13 Sally became pregnant and was packed off to an aunt in disgrace by her mother.

Blurred visions of various attempted abortions blend with the memory of giving birth to a poor scrap of a dead baby son after a 26-week pregnancy. She still cannot get through the date on which her son should have been born without crying.

Later, at the age of 21, when she was on the way home from a fancy-dress party and was larking about as a spooky ghost to her companion's Count Dracula, her companion pinned her down and raped her. She became pregnant again and, unable to face bringing up a rapist's baby, had an abortion.

Then, in her mid-thirties, when fate should have been exhausted with dealing her such bad hands, she miscarried a much-wanted baby conceived with her boyfriend, a doctor. 'The straw that broke the camel's back' is the phrase she uses to describe her feelings about the miscarriage. A nervous breakdown followed.

The baby-snatching impulses surfaced when she began to have counselling to come to terms with her childhood abuse. She has still not recovered from the loss of her babies.

When Sally tells you about her forays into supermarkets and her tentative attempts to steal babies, her green eyes appeal for understanding but at the same time anticipate condemnation.

She dries up as you probe her for details of the time she walked away with the red-haired baby for three hours. She doesn't want to admit that it was pre-planned, that she took nappies and food with her and selected the baby from the shopping precinct.

Sally knows she has a problem. She knew it from the first moment that she tried to steal a baby and hared off to the doctor, to be told: 'Well, if you've come to tell us about it, it can't be that serious.' And she needs no analyst to delve into the psychological motives behind her temptations.

'All I ever wanted was a cuddle and I just never got it. I just never felt loved and wanted. Taking babies is me trying to atone for my past. Initially, when I'm with the baby I'm just thinking, 'This is my baby, I've got all I ever wanted, something for me to love and something to love me back.' Then, at the final second, it's 'God, if I get caught I'll get sent down for this.' '

As she tuned in to hear the latest about baby Farrah, she felt sympathy for the parents' 48 hours of anguish. She also felt tremendous guilt. 'I kept saying out loud to myself, 'It wasn't me.' But I have also felt a lot of sympathy for the girl involved. I think there's going to be an outcry if she doesn't go to prison, but I can't help thinking, 'You need help, but how are you going to get it when everybody will be against you?' I think she will have been punished enough, emotionally and mentally, with what's gone on.'

There are no figures available for convictions for baby snatching, but Ken Norman from the Portia Trust, a charity for people in trouble with the law, estimates there are about eight women convicted of baby snatching in prison. In cases where thwarted mother-love is the motivation, he says, children are always unharmed and well looked after.

Mr Norman, a former Fleet Street journalist, is calling for state funding for a nursing home where convicted baby snatchers can be given residential care and specialised psychiatric treatment. It would also be open to any woman experiencing these impulses who is referred by her GP.

Like Sally, Mr Norman believes that Farrah Quli's abductor has suffered enough. 'From the moment she took that baby, there would be an outpouring of love for the child she would have believed was her own. She would have seen the police taking her away as a baby snatch itself.'

He wants to see baby snatching treated as an illness and not a crime. The next few weeks could show whether the authorities agree.