Adding prebiotics to formula feed can help cut the risk of babies developing a form of eczema, research suggests.
Formula milk was supplemented
Milan's Center for Infant Nutrition found atopic dermatitis was less likely in babies given supplemented formula than those given the standard form.
Prebiotics encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
The study, presented to Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health conference, suggests that might give a boost to the immune system.
Form of eczema common among young children
Causes dry and itchy skin
Carries an increased risk of developing other atopic illnesses such as asthma, hay fever and allergy
Lead researcher Professor Guido Moro said the risk of atopic dermatitis was reduced by over 50% in the prebiotic-fed infants.
He said: "To our knowledge this is the first time that it has been shown that prebiotics can not only produce favourable changes in the gut flora, but that these changes can lead to a genuine clinical benefit.
"It appears that prebiotics can strengthen the immune system and so reduce the risk of atopic dermatitis during the first months of life."
The research focused on 192 healthy children considered to be at high risk of developing allergies.
At least one parent of each child had been diagnosed with an allergic disease.
Parents of every child considered for the study were advised to breastfeed their children.
However, none of the children who ended up taking part was breastfed.
The children of those who, nevertheless, decided to start with formula feeding were assigned to one of two groups.
Half the children received formula milk supplemented with a prebiotic mixture made up of two types of carbohydrates called galacto-oligosaccharides and long chain fructo-oligosaccharides.
Previous research has suggested this mixture has a similar impact to breast milk on the bacteria living in the gut, boosting beneficial bugs, and inhibiting growth of bugs that can cause disease.
After six months, 10.6% of the group given prebiotics showed signs of atopic dermatitis, compared with 22.4% of those given formula supplemented with a placebo.
Analysis showed the proportion of "friendly" bifidobacteria was significantly higher in the stools of infants fed on the prebiotic.
Muriel Symmons, of the charity UK Allergy, said: "This study adds to our knowledge of the role of prebiotics in helping to prevent the development of eczema in infants.
"More work of this kind is needed to establish whether prebiotic supplements can help those babies whose mothers are unable or choose not to breast feed."
Nina Goad, of the British Skin Foundation, said: "We know that atopic dermatitis is a condition in which many factors can influence its development and severity."
Details of the study were presented at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health Spring Meeting in York.