Adding a type of carbohydrate found in human breast milk to infant formula may cut the incidence of allergies and infections in the young, researchers claim.
A study in the Journal of Nutrition found the benefits lasted long after the babies had stopped having formula and had been weaned, with the effects still evident after two years.
Child healthcare specialists hailed the new study as very promising, building on earlier evidence that the specific mixture of prebiotic oligosaccharides can encourage the balance of healthy bacteria in the gut and so enhance the development of the immune system in early life.
Professor Guido Moro, of the Centre for Infant Nutrition, University of Milan, Italy, said: "Our hypothesis was that this mixture of prebiotic oligosaccharides could mimic the immune modulatory function of human milk, leading to a reduction in the incidence of allergic manifestations, such as atopic dermatitis, and infections in formula-fed infants."
The results show that, compared with placebo, the prebiotic oligosaccharide-enriched milk halved the cumulative incidence of atopic dermatitis from 27.9% to 13.6%. It also reduced total infections by 30% and cut antibiotic prescriptions by a third.
John Collard, clinical director of Allergy UK, said: "This study certainly appears to reinforce the importance of the right gut flora in the prevention of the development of some allergies, and the importance of prebiotics in the development of the desirable gut flora."