Disadvantaged communities have gained only limited advantages from a government scheme to improve their quality of life, a report says.
Not all parents may access Sure Start's services, the report says
The most deprived families in the UK may even be adversely affected by the Sure Start programme, research says.
Academics at Birkbeck College also say the project is not reaching all who could benefit.
The government says the scheme and other initiatives are crucial to the long-term well-being of children.
The research - which examined the effect of the programme on mothers of nine-month-old and three-year-old children - says mothers in Sure Start areas do not rate services as better than in other communities.
"There was little evidence that programme achieved their goals of increasing service use or usefulness or of enhancing families' impressions of their communities," the report says.
However, it suggests that parenting techniques may have improved slightly for parents of three-year-olds living in Sure Start areas.
And families experiencing a lesser degree of disadvantage may benefit from living in a programme area, although the most deprived are less likely to gain any advantages.
This could be because teenage or lone parents, and families where no adult is in work, are less able or likely to make use of Sure Start services.
Programmes should ensure these parents are not "turned off" by the support offered, the researchers recommend.
Staff may need to be more proactive in order to reach parents who lack the confidence to ask for support, they continue.
Sure Start programmes aim to enhance the life chances of children under four who are growing up in disadvantaged communities, and to improve their health and well-being.
The report - National Evaluation of Sure Start - was written by academics at Birbeck College's Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues, led by Professor Edward Melhuish.
The report says further research examining the development of the current nine-month-old children would enable them to draw more conclusions about Sure Start's impact.
High turnover of managers and an ongoing roll-out of more policy initiatives such as children's centres may undermine some local programmes, the report adds.
Sure Start services are available on a local level, and to all families.
Programme organisers work to improve local services - and many provide affordable childcare.
Education Secretary Ruth Kelly said the ten-year childcare strategy would build on what was already achieved, including providing more extended schools.
"We need to ensure that all the local Sure Start programmes follow the example of those that have been most successful," Ms Kelly said.
She said best practice guidance for programmes, also published, would place greater emphasis on home visits and outreach work.