PREGNANT women and fathers-to-be will get extra maternity care, support and advice as the Government pours a further pound;50 million into its battle to end child poverty.
Health minister Yvette Cooper will today order more money to be distributed via 260 Sure Start programmes, increasing budgets by around 10 per cent.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said Sure Start - a major plank in the Government's battle to end child poverty - would now help parents and children from the time of conception rather than from birth.
"The evidence has clearly shown the benefits to the child of looking after mothers during pregnancy, giving them decent access to healthcare and education," he said.
Sure Start support will be offered to pregnant women and fathers-to-be by their GPs and hospitals. Recent research about the impact of the early months of a child's life on its later development has strengthened the case for preventative care.
The Medical Research Council's National Survey of Health and Development demonstrated a link between low birth weight and poor cognitive ability. Research also suggests that low birth-weight babies are more likely to uffer from chronic health conditions in later life.
A US study calculated that for every dollar spent on early programmes, $7 will be saved in future costs to society.
The Institute for Public Policy Research's think tank has called for pound;300m to pay child benefit to pregnant women from 12 weeks to fight child poverty and inequality.
Liz Kendall, researcher in health policy, said: "One-in-three families entering poverty do so on the birth of a child, through a combination of increased costs and reduced earnings. At present the benefit system fails to recognise these costs."
The Government is spending about pound;500m on Sure Start, which should reach 400,000 under-fours by 2004.
Programmes also include new early-years centres, greater access to health visitors and speech and language therapists, and lessons for parents in child development.
Most are led by partnerships between local authorities, voluntary organisations and parents.
Over the next six years, a team of 50 researchers will monitor and survey every programme to establish how they affect children's physical, social and intellectual development.