BACKGROUND: Dental caries (decay) during childhood is largely preventable however it remains a significant and costly public health concern, identified as the most prevalent chronic disease of childhood. Caries in children aged less than five years (early childhood caries) is a rapid and progressive disease that can be painful and debilitating, and significantly increases the likelihood of poor child growth, development and social outcomes. Early childhood caries may also result in a substantial social burden on families and significant costs to the public health system. A disproportionate burden of disease is also experienced by disadvantaged populations. METHODS/DESIGN: This study involves the establishment of a birth cohort in disadvantaged communities in Victoria, Australia. Children will be followed for at least 18 months and the data gathered will explore longitudinal relationships and generate new evidence on the natural history of early childhood caries, the prevalence of the disease and relative contributions of risk and protective biological, environmental and behavioural factors. Specifically, the study aims to:1. Describe the natural history of early childhood caries (at ages 1, 6, 12 and 18 months), tracking pathways from early bacterial colonisation, through non-cavitated enamel white spot lesions to cavitated lesions extending into dentine.2. Enumerate oral bacterial species in the saliva of infants and their primary care giver.3. Identify the strength of concurrent associations between early childhood caries and putative risk and protective factors, including biological (eg microbiota, saliva), environmental (fluoride exposure) and socio-behavioural factors (proximal factors such as: feeding practices and oral hygiene; and distal factors such as parental health behaviours, physical health, coping and broader socio-economic conditions).4. Quantify the longitudinal relationships between these factors and the development and progression of early childhood caries from age 1-18 months. DISCUSSION: There is currently a lack of research describing the natural history of early childhood caries in very young children, or exploring the interactions between risk and protective factors that extend to include contemporary measures of socio-behavioural factors. This study will generate knowledge about pathways, prevalence and preventive opportunities for early childhood caries, the most prevalent child health inequality.