Human breast milk contains natural prebiotics (oligosaccharides), which promote the growth of bacteria, such as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria that boost the development of a healthy immune system. This can help prevent allergies in a very young child.
Researchers developed an infant formula based on the prebiotic content of human breast milk and tested it out on a group of babies one of other of whose parents had atopic eczema, or allergic rhinitis, or asthma.
All the mothers were advised to breastfeed their babies, all of whom were born after a normal length pregancy. But for those unable to start or continue, their babies were divided into two groups, with 102 given a prebiotic formula feed and 104 given a normal formula.
The babies were seen on a monthly basis up to the age of 6 months, and their parents kept a symptom diary.
Over the six months, only 10 babies fed the prebiotic formula developed atopic dermatitis, compared with 24 fed the normal formula. An assessment of stool samples from 98 of the babies showed a significant increase in bifidobacteria in those fed the prebiotic feed.
This strongly suggests that formula feed supplemented with prebiotics can modify the bowel bacteria and so reduce the chance of developing atopic dermatitis among children at high risk of the disorder.