Young children in poor areas are more likely to be taken to the library, learn the alphabet and have stories read to them if there is a Sure Start children's centre nearby, an official evaluation has found.
By the age of five, children living in the 150 areas where Sure Start was first implemented are also likely to be healthier and less overweight than their peers.
As well as providing a good home learning environment, mothers in these areas were less likely to smack, swear at or slap their children, the Government-commissioned research said.
Previous studies have shown that the home learning environment is one of the biggest factors in how children perform in reading and maths at primary school.
But the overall improvements brought about by the Sure Start programme have been limited, researchers concluded. Mothers were also more likely to report depressive symptoms and slightly less likely to visit their child's school.
The researchers, based at Birkbeck, University of London, found that being in a Sure Start area made little difference to children's foundation stage profile scores or their social and emotional development.
Professor Edward Melhuish, executive director of the project team, said: "The effect sizes are small but over a population they are very significant for policy development... If we could produce similar effect sizes in schools, the government would be over the moon."
The study of more than 7,000 children since 2003 found that a start had been made on breaking the link between poverty and life chances.
Megan Pacey, chief executive of charity Early Education, said: "The things they have got right and which have made an impact are really important things in terms of laying the foundations. This evaluation is showing the beginning of positive work."
The first Sure Start local programmes were set up in deprived areas. Since then, it has become universal in England and a "core offer" of services that centres must provide has been introduced.
There has also been a change in the national provision of pre-school education. Sure Start local programmes offered early education, but since 2004 the Government has funded 12.5 hours of early education for all three and four-year-olds, which has now been extended to 15 hours.
This move could be part of the reason the research did not find a difference between foundation stage profile results for children living in areas with Sure Start local programmes and those in other areas.
The Government has said it will protect Sure Start as a universal network of children's centres with a core offer, but that centres should consider charging families who can afford to pay. The full 40-hour-a-week daycare offer will no longer be a requirement in the most deprived areas.
Children's minister Sarah Teather said: "Sure Start Children's Centres are at the heart of the Government's vision for early intervention, tackling disadvantage and improving life chances. Your birth should not determine your fate and that is why we want to retain a national network of Sure Start children's centres."