It is important to provide formula-fed infants with a bifidobacteria-enriched gut microbiota similar to those of breastfed infants to ensure intestinal health. Prebiotics, such as certain oligosaccharides, are a useful solution to this problem, but the combinational benefits of these oligosaccharides have not been evaluated. This study investigated the benefits of oligosaccharide combinations and screened for an optimal combination of oligosaccharides to promote healthy gut microbiota of formula-fed infants. In vitro and in vivo experiments were performed to assess the bifidogenic effects of lactulose (LAC) alone and LAC combined with raffinose (RAF) and/or galacto-oligosaccharide (GOS), using a mixed culture model and neonatal mice orally administered with these oligosaccharides and Bifidobacterium breve. In the in vitro culture model, the combination of the three oligosaccharides (LAC–RAF–GOS) significantly increased cell numbers of B. breve and Bifidobacterium longum (P<0·05) compared with either LAC alone or the combination of two oligosaccharides, and resulted in the production of SCFA under anaerobic conditions. In the in vivo experiment, the LAC–RAF–GOS combination significantly increased cell numbers of B. breve and Bacteroidetes in the large intestinal content (P<0·05) and increased acetate concentrations in the caecal content and serum of neonatal mice. Genes related to metabolism and immune responses were differentially expressed in the liver and large intestine of mice administered with LAC–RAF–GOS. These results indicate a synergistic effect of the LAC–RAF–GOS combination on the growth of bifidobacteria and reveal possible benefits of this combination to the gut microbiota and health of infants.