The moment I knew my baby had been stolen: Marianne Macdonald on the ordeal endured by kidnapped Abbie's parents

IT FELT as though she had spent every other minute in the lavatory since the birth. This time, she could hear her husband, Roger, chatting outside to a visitor in their private room and the subdued noises of pleasure from their three-year-old son, Charlie. 'Who was that?' she said to Roger when she came out. 'Oh, it was the nurse,' he replied. 'They're not nurses, they're midwives,' Karen corrected him. She was one herself, after all. 'Which one was it?' she asked. Roger looked up casually. 'The one that's taken her for a hearing test,' he said. Karen looked at the bed. With a stab of fear she saw her baby girl was no longer lying there.

There was something supremely normal about Karen and Roger Humphries; about the way they met at a New Year's Eve party in 1980; about the way they married three years later, had their first son, Charlie, and then decided to have a second child to make their family complete.

They were a decent, hard-working couple, he a 33-year-old supervisor with a painting and decorating firm in Nottingham, she a 32- year-old midwife. They were not particularly well-off, not particularly glamorous, not even particularly good-looking. Perhaps it was their very ordinariness that made it so horrifying when their world was shattered.

It was 3am when Karen Humphries, 32, felt her first pangs of labour and at 10.01 - far quicker than than she expected - their second baby was born, she told the Daily Mirror.

They had had no idea whether it would be a boy or a girl and hadn't even decided on a name. Karen wanted to call her Molly. Roger didn't. She suggested Flora. 'I'm not having my daughter named after a margarine]' he said. What about Abbie or Annie, her grandmother's name, Karen suggested. Perhaps Abbie, he conceded. But they decided to defer their choice until Charlie arrived. For they had no idea her name would acquire a terrifying signifance. They had no thought that police would be urging them, only hours later, to decide so they could be seeking a person and not just an anonymous baby when they appealed for her return.

Instead they admired the new baby and ate buttered toast before Roger left to collect Charlie. Even then, on the far side of Nottingham, a woman was preparing to steal their baby.

They didn't know that. Even when a woman popped her head around the door of their private room in ward B27 and asked where the mother was because she had to take the baby for a hearing test, Roger had no suspicion. He told her Karen was on the phone; she said she would pop back.

Charlie had a present from his sister, a model Porsche 911. Charlie and Roger began whizzing the car to each other across the linoleum floor. The baby lay on the bed beside them. Karen had come back and gone to the lavatory.

The woman came back while they were playing and picked up the baby. 'I'm just going to take the baby for a hearing test,' she said. 'I'll be just up the corridor. I'll only be a couple of minutes.' She turned around and left.

Seconds later Karen emerged from the lavatory. She had heard the voices and wondered which of her nursing friends had popped in. 'Roger said, 'The one that's taken her for a routine hearing test'. And I looked at the bed and she wasn't there. I knew immediately that something was amiss, then tried to convince myself that it was not. I just thought: 'No, they've made a mistake, it's you who is being silly Karen'.'

She had run classes for expectant mothers and warned them never to hand over babies to strangers, or, if they did, to accompany them. 'You stupid prat,' she snapped. 'Haven't you read in the papers about people taking babies out of hospitals? Who was she?'

'It's alright,' Roger insisted, knowing she was emotional in the aftermath of giving birth. 'She had a uniform on.'

Karen ignored him and in her nightie and dressing gown she walked quickly down the corridor to the nursing station, Charlie trotting at her side. She said to the midwife: 'Aren't men stupid? He's let somebody take her for a hearing test. Do you know anything about it?'

She had a look on her face that said no. She phoned to the room where they were carried out. Karen couldn't stay there. 'I just went straight back up the ward and burst into floods of tears. Charlie started crying as well. Roger looked at me and I said, 'They know nothing about it, Roger'.' He looked at her with horror, sprinted down the ward and crashed through the double doors at the end. The corridor was deserted. The baby had gone.

In the foyer, Roger pushed his way among the crowd of patients and visitors, into the car park, peering into cars. 'What I was feeling was desperation,' he says. 'I was trying to catch a glimpse of someone through a thousand million bodies. All that was on my mind was that I'm going to get back and she'll be there. I thought it was a silly mix-up, a silly mistake.' But it wasn't. Karen, waiting in their private room, felt no- one was telling her what was happening. Finally she rang the bell and a midwife told her the hearing department was being searched. Roger came back. There was no news. He left again.

'I went all the way out, to the main bus terminal and I got on a bus, looking for a woman and baby. The driver was just looking at me. Before he had a chance to ask me what I was doing I was off it and on the next one. Then I ran down the Derby Road right to the traffic lights. I ran the whole perimeter of the hospital. It must have been about three miles. My shirt was soaked. You could have wrung it out like a sponge.'

Back in the ward, Karen comforted Charlie. He already had a vague idea what had happened. Later he understood completely. He said: 'The naughty lady took our baby and made Mummy cry.'

When the police arrived, she heard that a woman had been seen trying to get into a taxi with a baby. 'I thought, God, she's got out of the hospital and she could be anywhere by now,' Karen recalled. Roger was devastated but she told him: 'It's not your fault, it could have happened to anyone.' More and more police arrived and on the police radio Karen could hear a policeman saying no-one could go off duty.

The midwife tried to reassure her it would be alright, but she was crying. Everyone was in tears. Roger's sister, Jo Sisson, took Charlie home, but Karen refused to leave the room where she had held her baby. No one slept that night. The next day, they were asked whether they had named the baby. Then they were asked to make an appeal for her return.

Roger had previously refused to consider it. But he was persuaded. Karen said: 'We walked down the ward and I was surrounded by police and men in suits. I could feel everyone's eyes on me. They were saying to themselves: 'That's the poor woman whose baby's been taken'.'

She and Roger immediately left for the friend's house where they would spend the next two weeks. Never had she thought that she would have been sneaking out of a tradesman's entrance after giving birth with no baby, just a panda and all the fear in the world.