05/06/2013 02:46 EDT | Updated 07/06/2013 05:12 EDT

Wandering toddler's mom believes spirit of grandmother kept boy safe overnight

SIDNEY, Man. - A Manitoba mother says she'll probably never know what happened during her three-year-old son's 13-hour, overnight disappearance, but she's sure the spirit of the child's great-grandmother must have protected him.

Nathaniel Dailey wandered away unnoticed in chilly temperatures Friday night wearing only his pyjamas and socks. A passerby found him the next morning playing in a ditch along the Trans-Canada Highway about five kilometres from his home.

Nathaniel's mother, Savannah Malyon, told Winnipeg's CJOB radio that her son was clean and dry with only a handful of burrs stuck to his pyjamas. He was happily playing beside a puddle on the opposite side of the Trans-Canada from where the family lives in Sidney, about halfway between Brandon and Portage la Prairie.

No one is sure what Nathaniel was up to in the hours he was missing. How could a little boy walk five kilometres in his socks? Cross a busy highway without being hit? Play in ditch water without drowning or even getting wet?

"We're not completely sure what happened to him." Malyon told CJOB Monday. "I believe my grandma — she passed away a few months ago — I really have a strong belief that she had her loving arms around him all night long and protected him, because it's just amazing how he wasn't hurt in any way."

Malyon had just finished giving her three kids a bath Friday night and was upstairs putting her one-year-old daughter to bed. Some friends had popped over for a visit and didn't know to relatch a child lock on the door.

Nathaniel, who likes to take off when the door is open, shot outside without anyone seeing him.

"I came down and the front door was wide open ... and my heart sank," Malyon recalled.

"He was gone."

She immediately called 911 and was advised to go door to door to ask for volunteer searchers until more help could arrive. Malyon said it was frightening knowing her son had disappeared into the night.

"It was cold and dark. It was terrible, terrible."

Eventually police with dogs, airplanes and helicopters joined the search. The canine units lost Nathaniel's scent along the highway, probably where he crossed.

"They said usually they find kids like that within 20 minutes, half an hour. It was 13 hours that he was gone, unaccounted for. It was pretty scary."

Nathaniel is home now and Malyon thinks he understands that he worried everyone, but he's still eyeing the door like a little escape artist.

"He was wanting to get out ... again, but we're watching him like a hawk, and the doors. We're making sure he's not able to open them and when people go in and out, we're right there."

Maybe it's all a game to him, she suggested.

"When he gets outside, he just runs and he doesn't look back for anybody. You call out his name and he'll just keep running.

"He thinks it's fun, I guess."

— With files from CJOB