Chalk up another potential benefit for breastfeeding.

Natural chemicals, called prebiotics, found in human breast milk may cut babies’ chances of developing skin allergies.

Guido Moro, MD, and colleagues report this news in the “online first” edition of the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

They studied 259 babies born between April 2003 and March 2005 at the Macedonio Melloni Maternity Hospital in Milan, Italy -- the hospital where Moro works.

The babies in Moro’s study were all healthy. But they were at high risk of developing skin allergies, since they had at least one parent diagnosed with allergies, eczema, or asthma.

When the mothers gave birth, the researchers advised them to breastfeed their babies.

But not all moms are able to breastfeed. So the researchers asked the women to tell them if they switched the babies to formula.

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All the babies included in Moro’s study had started receiving formula, at least occasionally, within the first two weeks of life. And all had stopped breastfeeding by six weeks.

The researchers supplied the formula. But this wasn’t ordinary formula. Moro’s team added prebiotics to the formula for a randomly chosen group of babies.

Prebiotics are thought to promote the growth of good bacteria in the intestines.

A total of 102 babies used the prebiotics formula for six months. Another 104 babies got ordinary formula for six months.

During that time, the babies got monthly checkups.

The researchers found that babies in the prebiotics group were less than half as likely to have skin allergies.

Skin allergies (atopic dermatitis) were diagnosed in 10 babies in the prebiotics group, 24 in the comparison group, the study shows.

It’s not yet clear exactly how prebiotics worked. But stool samples from 98 babies showed more gut-friendly bacteria in babies in the prebiotics group, the researchers note.

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By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Moro, G. Archives of Disease in Childhood, Online First edition, July 27, 2006. News release, BMJ Specialist Journals.