The differences in life chances between rich and poor begin before birth and widen in the early years, the Marmot review concluded.

Mothers from the most deprived backgrounds were less likely to cuddle and talk to their children, creating behavioural and language problems for the future, Sir Michael said.

The first year of life was crucial for brain development and laid the foundations for children's future capabilities, the report said, adding that there was good evidence that children who were slower in their early cognitive development were likely to fall further behind as they progressed through the education system.

The report called for parents to be able to stay at home during the first year of a child's life, for example by the mother taking six months of paid leave, followed by six months for the father. Parenting classes and more support for pregnant women and new mothers should also be offered. Sir Michael said: "We need to start with early childhood, where children are not getting the nurturing they need. These children get into the school system and what happens to the ones with worse cognitive development and worse language skills? The teachers respond to them less favourably than they to do to the bright, attentive, linguistically able kids."

Low birth-weight babies and children whose mothers suffer from postnatal depression are likely to do badly at school, while children who are read to every day and have a regular bed time by the age of three, are likely to do better.

The report called for a new minimum income for healthy living to be set – the lowest amount people should live on to live a long and healthy life – arguing that the minimum wage was simply not enough to live on healthily.

The minimum income would fund a healthy diet including five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and two portions of fish a week, the costs of exercise (such as trainers, bicycles or swimming in a local leisure centre) and money for telephone rental.

Other recommendations included more work-based learning schemes – to help children at risk of leaving school without qualifications – and closer links between schools, families and the community.

The report said that, each year, between £31bn and £33bn is lost in productivity because of poor health and up to £32bn is lost in taxes and in making higher welfare payments.