It is true that early focus on childhood development can make a difference in the long-term outcomes for children. However the kind of person who independently reads those studies usually naturally engages in many of the positive behaviors that make a difference in later life, such as frequently talking to their infants. That said, the kind of intervention they are talking about may not be what you expect - it's not academic at all in the traditional sense of the word.
There is a large volume of studies which have proved over and over again that young children learn best through play. Play is especially important for babies and toddlers. The development of motor skills - seemingly basic things such as reaching, batting, rolling over, crawling, a pincer grasp, and so on - have impacts far beyond the skills themselves. One 2010 study showed that early acheivement of fine motor skills was a strong predictor of later in life academic acheivement (source). Your earliest "schooling" of your child will be through loving and play. You can find many play activities which promote age-appropriate development of motor skills and other skills at ZERO TO THREE, a site dedicated to development from birth until age 3.
Futher studies on the benefit of play cover the preschool years. You can read a book-length overview of the evidence in A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool. There is a briefer overview of some of the evidence related to preschoolers in this policy brief. Some things that brief points out include:
- Free play - that is play which is not directed by a parent - stimulates interest in mathematics regardless of the child's sex. It also fosters creative thinking and social problem-solving.
- Overviews of long-term outcomes for kids who have play-based early education versus kids who have academic-based early education support children who have play-based early education.
- Studies show that make-believe play has many benefits for young children as well.
ZERO TO THREE has an interactive tool to support school-readiness which goes over many activities which parents can engage in with their children to provide a foundation for life-long learning. That tool makes a wonderful statement which sums up the current thinking on how infants and toddlers learn:
It isn’t necessary to “teach” very young children. Formal classes and other activities that push babies and toddlers to read and write words do not help their development or make the do better in school. In fact, they can even make children feel like failures when they are pushed to do something they don’t enjoy or that is beyond their skills.
Books on learning which you may find useful include Einstein Never Used Flashcards and the much-praised Nurtureshock.
As far as preparation for the formal education years down the road, now may be a time to determine which learning philosophy you plan to follow, to make sure that the primary teaching parent is him or herself adequate in all subject areas to be taught (or to find teaching cooperatives where an adequate instructor can be found), and to research homeschooling resources in your area. Parents with adequate knowledge themselves make or break the homeschooling experience based on what I, a homeschooled child, have seen.