Recent studies have suggested that the identification of caries as discrete patterns may be valuable in describing and predicting caries experience on an individual basis. The purpose of this study was to assess the association between levels of salivary mutans streptococci and the prevalence, incidence and distribution of caries patterns in the primary dentition. A cohort of pre-school children (n = 146, mean age 3.8 yr) were examined for dental caries and sampled for salivary mutans streptococci (SMS) at baseline and once annually for 2 yr. Children's tooth surfaces were categorized into four patterns: pit/fissure, maxillary anterior, posterior proximal, and buccal/lingual smooth surface. Salivary mutans streptococci were enumerated using a tongue blade technique, and were categorized as low (0 CFU), moderate (1-50 CFU) and high (> 50 CFU). At year 2, children with high baseline SMS had the 1) highest prevalence of caries (87%) and the highest dmfs (9.15); 2) highest prevalence of each pattern, and 3) greatest number of patterns. Among children with the pit/fissure pattern, those with high baseline SMS had the greatest pit/fissure dmfs after 2 yr. Results show that baseline SMS levels were associated with both cross-sectional and longitudinal caries experience, numbers of caries patterns, and the prevalence and severity of those patterns.