A Tauranga mother feared her 3-year-old child had been snatched when he went missing at Bayfair for almost half an hour.

Mum-of-two Michele Hunter was at the shopping centre with her mother and two young children on Monday when Jackson, who turned 3 yesterday, disappeared.

They had just finished lunch about 1pm when Mrs Hunter and her mother decided to take Jackson and Ruby to the playground.

Jackson was playing with a new toy train he got for his birthday, pushing it around the floor and along the couch Mrs Hunter and her mother were on.

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"He had just squashed in behind me. He was right there," Mrs Hunter said.

A few seconds later she turned to look for him and he was gone.

"His train was still sitting on the couch. He usually has the train in his hands and because this was a new one he was really attached to it. I instantly thought because he didn't have the train with him, someone had taken him.

"The most frightening thing was how big Bayfair is and how small Jackson is. We didn't know which direction he'd gone."

Her mother headed into Kmart to look for Jackson but had no luck. Security staff also looked for him and an announcement was made over the shop's intercom.

Mrs Hunter stayed near the playground scanning the area and asking stallholders to keep an eye out for the blonde, barefoot boy. His shoes sat by the playground where he took them off.

Still no sign of him.

Mrs Hunter found the information centre and asked for their help but, in her panic, could not remember what Jackson was wearing.

"I was totally convinced someone had taken him. It was every mother's worst nightmare."

Keri Courtney was in Countdown when she heard the intercom announcement about a lost child and decided to help.

"I thought, 'Oh, that poor mum'. It could happen to any of us. They are little Houdinis."

She left the supermarket and did a sweep of the mall, looking under clothes racks for the boy before she spotted Mrs Hunter and realised it was her friend's child missing.

"I felt for her because I could just imagine the feeling."

About 25 minutes after he disappeared a Bayfair staff member raced down the stairs saying she could see him in Kmart, Mrs Hunter said.

Seconds later Jackson was guided out of the shop by two adults.

"I sprinted towards him. I'd never been so happy to see him in my life," she said.

Bayfair centre manager Steve Ellingford said when staff were alerted they took down a description, contacted the on-floor security team and started a full centre search.

"The security team was able to identify the child using onsite CCTV footage. He was located within five minutes of being reported as missing," he said.

Mall staff told Mrs Hunter her son had been happily sitting in Kmart's toy aisle playing with toy cars.

Mrs Hunter said the terrifying experience was a warning to other parents not to underestimate how fast a child can get away and not to get distracted in conversation.

Since then she had explained to Jackson that if he wanted to go somewhere he needed to tell her first so she could go with him.

"He apologised to me because I told him he made mum really scared."