The Duchess of Cambridge has insisted she is not looking for a “quick win” with her work on childhood development but stressed: “The time for action is now.”
She said she wanted to take a "holistic approach" to better prepare the next generation of parents.
The Duchess, 39, expressed a hope that her new Centre for Early Childhood could help to make it “more common to speak about emotions and feelings” which would in turn enable adults to understand how affection affects their own behaviour.
She was speaking at a roundtable discussion with experts, convened at the London School of Economics to discuss the findings of the centre’s inaugural report, Big Change Starts Small.
“My hope today, through the report and through this new centre, is to show that change really needs to happen, and the time for action is now,” the Duchess said.
“Because I feel that this is the social equivalent of climate change, where we followed the science for many, many years.
“That is what we have to do with early childhood development if we want to build a happier, healthier world.
“The more we learn about early childhood and the first five years of life the greater imperative it is to act.”
The Duchess, wearing a lilac LK Bennett dress, said that as a parent and during pregnancy, there were “many conversations” about physical milestones but little support or guidance beyond “what you can see” – such as the importance of brain development.
The centre, which was launched on Friday and will be based at Kensington Palace, marks the culmination of 10 years of work by the Duchess into the critical impact the first five years of life has on society.
Her research has shown that social challenges such as addiction, violence, family breakdown, homelessness and mental health are often rooted in the early years.
The report, written in collaboration with the Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University and the London School of Economic (LSE), found that the failure to tackle early years problems costs an annual £16.13 billion in England alone.
The Duchess said: "The cost of lost opportunity not only affects the individual but its the impact it has on families and communities and society at large.
"I think that's why we have all got a role to play, because each and every level of our lives, there is something we can all do."
The Duchess was joined for the discussion at the LSE by leading academics and practitioners with whom she has worked for many years. Among them were representatives from the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, Mind, Place2Be, the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Future Men.
Dr Guddi Singh, a paediatric registrar at Guy's and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, said the Royal Foundation’s work in the field had proved there was a “big disconnect” just as there had been with climate change.
“The gap between what science knows and what society knows is massive,” she said.
“Parenting hasn't had the elevation that it needs in this country, and in fact in any Western country… It’s about tackling that as an issue.”
Dr Singh added: “In terms of language, I don't think we talked about love enough in this country. I don't think we talk about it openly and without any shame.”
Dame Benny Refson, president of Place2Be, recalled meeting a young prisoner who had a tattoo on his arm that said “loved by few, hated by many.”
She said: "This is not the way to go into adulthood. The sooner we can make a difference to their lives, the better our society is going to be.”
Paul Farmer, CEO of Mind, said that behind the statistics about the economic impact of not investing in the early years was “the reality” of lives lost and ruined.
“That, of course, is the greatest tragedy of all," he added. "I think it's so important. When you start looking at the damage that has often happened, it all too often it tracks back to what's been happening in people's early years.”
Professor Peter Fonagy, CEO of the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, said it was vital to “engage young people in the education of even younger people”.
“This is where your centre can really come into its own,” he told the Duchess.
“Kids in school learn about the pancreas, they don’t learn about the developing brain. Why? I’ve no idea why.
"They could be taught it. So there is an enormous amount the centre could do, for example, in creating a curriculum for secondary schools that would be disseminated nationwide.”
The Duchess said she was "excited" to see what the centre would achieve, reiterating her long term commitment to the cause and adding: "This is just the beginning."
She was later reunited with parents she has met over the past decade who have helped to shape her understanding of the importance of the early years, chatting about their experiences at Kensington Palace.