To look at Emily Beugen cuddling her two small children, it’s difficult to guess that her first pregnancy sent her spiraling into depression.

But nine weeks after Sarah, now 5, was born, the baby got the flu and was hospitalized. Then, Beugen got sick, too. Her milk production decreased. Her tension mounted.

“One morning I woke up … and suddenly I just felt a cold feeling come over me,” she said. “I was laying in the bed and I had Sarah next to me … I looked at her and it was as if she had become an alien. I didn’t know who she was.”

After two attempts to get help, Beugen was diagnosed with postpartum depression and placed in a hospital psychiatric ward.

What happened to Beugen was “a nightmare come true” experienced by many women seeking help for moderate to severe symptoms, said Dr. Helen Kim, a psychiatrist at Hennepin County Medical Center. Treatment options have been limited for the one in 10 women who suffer from postpartum depression in Minnesota and most other states. Many were locked up with the chronically mentally ill and separated from their newborns.

That’s why Kim, a national expert on postpartum depression, spearheaded an effort to establish an innovative treatment center allowing mothers to bring their babies with them. HCMC’s Mother-Baby Program, which opens Monday, is the first of its kind in the state and one of only four in the country.

The short-term, outpatient mental health treatment center focuses on improving the emotional health of mothers and strengthening their bond with their babies.

Modeled after a program at Brown University in Rhode Island, the HCMC program also includes a triage phone line for mothers and their families to call for support and resources.

Housed in a suite on the fourth floor of HCMC’s Parkside Professional Building in downtown Minneapolis, the day hospital is designed to feel more like home than a sterile hospital.

“We were very discouraged by the lack of options for women when they were struggling,” said Kim, the program’s medical director. “The mother-baby approach, [of] really letting women stay with their children and addressing their very unique needs, was very helpful — and often life saving.”

Warning signs

Treating any depression is difficult, but pregnancy-related depression poses special challenges.

Society paints a romanticized view of motherhood as a state of loving bliss and reinforces the notion that mothers are supposed to easily step into a demanding role, said Jesse Kuendig, the Mother-Baby Program’s senior social worker. Postpartum depression disrupts the ability of many women to adapt to the demands, and occurs at even higher rates among low-income women, teenage moms and other high-risk groups.

The symptoms can be difficult to recognize. Moodiness and feeling heightened emotions are common for most women during and after pregnancy, said Kim. A mother’s emotional state becomes a concern, however, when it starts to interfere with her ability to take care of herself and her baby.

In addition, a distressed mother’s thinking can become distorted and her thoughts can quickly morph into feelings of unworthiness.

“She may start to think, ‘Maybe baby is better off without me. Maybe family is better off without me,’ ” Kim said.

That thinking can affect how a mother interacts with her newborn. Depressed mothers make less eye contact and speak less to their babies, which can have a detrimental effect on the child’s health.

“For a baby, their experience is of a mother who’s there, but not fully there,” she said.

Once a mother — or family member or friend — realizes there’s a problem, help is not always easy to find.

“Part of our thinking was to create a one-stop place for people,” said Kuendig.

Mothers helping mothers

A distinctive feature of the Mother-Baby Program is that it relies on group therapy to help mothers learn how to respond to their baby’s needs. It also helps them build a support system.

“It’s so important to have a unique program just for pregnant and postpartum women,” said Kuendig, “just to know how common it is and to sit across from someone who is having a similar experience.”

That’s what Beugen discovered.

After she was released from the psychiatric ward, she was more willing to accept help from her husband, Brett, as well as from friends and family. Still, she realized she needed professional help. She took part in an outpatient treatment program and began seeing a psychiatrist, but neither specialized in postpartum depression. Finally, she was referred to Kim at HCMC.

Since then, Beugen has formed friendships with other mothers who struggled with depression. Her second pregnancy, with her son, David, now 11 months old, went much better, she said. Now she’s enjoying motherhood.

“I was talking to someone about how great this has been — it’s gone so fast — and they said ‘This is what it’s supposed to be like.’ This is how it should feel.”