We explored the relationship between mutans streptococcal infection and the development of salivary IgA antibody during initial colonization. Repetitive swabbing (n=292) of the teeth of 33 children revealed that 45% became infected with mutans streptococci between 13 and 36 months of age. In contrast, mutans streptococci could not be detected in 18 children whose last sample was taken at 39-81 months of age (median age=62 months). During the period of mutans streptococcal infectivity, immunoglobulin A (IgA) antibody to several mutans streptococcal antigens appeared in most children, whether or not infection had been demonstrated. Robust responses to mutans streptococcal components occurred during or shortly after, but not before the period of mutans streptococcal infectivity. No consistent differences were observed among the summarized patterns of response of infected and uninfected groups of children, although the IgA Western blot patterns of individual subjects were often quite distinct. For example, sets of siblings, who would be presumed to be challenged with similar maternal mutans streptococcal clonotypes, were shown to develop qualitatively different salivary IgA responses to mutans streptococcal components. These results support a discrete period for mutans streptococcal infection and may suggest that the level of maternal infection is a factor in the success of infection of the child during this period. The data also suggest that exposure to mutans streptococci is a sufficient condition for robust mucosal IgA responses to mutans streptococcal antigens during the period of infectivity and that these responses may be different, even among siblings.