Nearly one in four breast cancers is diagnosed before the age of 50, and many early-stage premalignant lesions are present but not yet diagnosed. Therefore, we review evidence to support the strategy that breast cancer prevention efforts must begin early in life. This study follows the literature review methods and format. Exposures during childhood and adolescence affect a woman's long-term risk of breast cancer, but have received far less research attention than exposures that occur later in life. Breast tissue undergoes rapid cellular proliferation between menarche and first full-term pregnancy, and risk accumulates rapidly until the terminal differentiation that accompanies first pregnancy. Evidence on childhood diet and growth in height, and adolescent alcohol intake, among other adolescent factors is related to breast cancer risk and risk of premalignant proliferative benign lesions. Breast cancer prevention efforts will have the greatest effect when initiated at an early age and continued over a lifetime. Gaps in knowledge are identified and deserve increase attention to inform prevention.