MutationObserver is a built-in object that observes a DOM element and fires a callback in case of changes.

We’ll first take a look at the syntax, and then explore a real-world use case.

Syntax

MutationObserver is easy to use.

First, we create an observer with a callback-function:

let observer = new MutationObserver(callback);

And then attach it to a DOM node:

observer.observe(node, config);

config is an object with boolean options “what kind of changes to react on”:

  • childList – changes in the direct children of node,
  • subtree – in all descendants of node,
  • attributes – attributes of node,
  • attributeFilter – an array of attribute names, to observe only selected ones.
  • characterData – whether to observe node.data (text content),

Few other options:

  • attributeOldValue – if true, pass both the old and the new value of attribute to callback (see below), otherwise only the new one (needs attributes option),
  • characterDataOldValue – if true, pass both the old and the new value of node.data to callback (see below), otherwise only the new one (needs characterData option).

Then after any changes, the callback is executed: changes are passed in the first argument as a list of MutationRecord objects, and the observer itself as the second argument.

MutationRecord objects have properties:

  • type – mutation type, one of
    • "attributes": attribute modified
    • "characterData": data modified, used for text nodes,
    • "childList": child elements added/removed,
  • target – where the change occurred: an element for "attributes", or text node for "characterData", or an element for a "childList" mutation,
  • addedNodes/removedNodes – nodes that were added/removed,
  • previousSibling/nextSibling – the previous and next sibling to added/removed nodes,
  • attributeName/attributeNamespace – the name/namespace (for XML) of the changed attribute,
  • oldValue – the previous value, only for attribute or text changes, if the corresponding option is set attributeOldValue/characterDataOldValue.

For example, here’s a <div> with a contentEditable attribute. That attribute allows us to focus on it and edit.

<div contentEditable id="elem">Click and <b>edit</b>, please</div>

<script>
let observer = new MutationObserver(mutationRecords => {
  console.log(mutationRecords); // console.log(the changes)
});

// observe everything except attributes
observer.observe(elem, {
  childList: true, // observe direct children
  subtree: true, // and lower descendants too
  characterDataOldValue: true // pass old data to callback
});
</script>

Now if we change the text inside <b>edit</b>, we’ll get a single mutation:

mutationRecords = [{
  type: "characterData",
  oldValue: "edit",
  target: <text node>,
  // other properties empty
}];

If we select and remove the <b>edit</b> altogether, we’ll get multiple mutations:

mutationRecords = [{
  type: "childList",
  target: <div#elem>,
  removedNodes: [<b>],
  nextSibling: <text node>,
  previousSibling: <text node>
  // other properties empty
}, {
  type: "characterData"
  target: <text node>
  // ...mutation details depend on how the browser handles such removal
  // it may coalesce two adjacent text nodes "edit " and ", please" into one node
  // or it may leave them separate text nodes
}];

So, MutationObserver allows to react on any changes within DOM subtree.

Usage for integration

When such thing may be useful?

Imagine the situation when you attach a third-party script that adds useful functionality on the page, but also does something unwanted, e.g. shows ads <div class="ads">Unwanted ads</div>.

Naturally, the third-party script provides no mechanisms to remove it.

Using MutationObserver, we can detect when such element appears in our DOM and remove it. While leaving the useful functionality intact. Surely though, creators of that script won’t be happy that you took their useful stuff and removed the ads.

There are other situations when a third-party script adds something into our document, and we’d like to detect, when it happens, to adapt our page, dynamically resize something etc.

MutationObserver can easily handle this.

Usage for architecture

There are also situations when MutationObserver is good from architectural standpoint.

Let’s say we’re making a website about programming. Naturally, articles and other materials may contain source code snippets.

Such snippet in an HTML markup looks like this:

...
<pre class="language-javascript"><code>
  // here's the code
  let hello = "world";
</code></pre>
...

Also we’ll use a JavaScript highlighting library on our site, e.g. Prism.js. A call to Prism.highlightElem(pre) examines the contents of such pre elements and adds into them special tags and styles for colored syntax highlighting, similar to what you see in examples here, at this page.

When exactly to run that highlighting method? We can do it on DOMContentLoaded event, or at the bottom of the page. At that moment we have our DOM ready, can search for elements pre[class*="language"] and call Prism.highlightElem on them:

// highlight all code snippets on the page
document.querySelectorAll('pre[class*="language"]').forEach(Prism.highlightElem);

Everything’s simple so far, right? There are <pre> code snippets in HTML, we highlight them.

Now let’s go on. Let’s say we’re going to dynamically fetch materials from a server. We’ll study methods for that later in the tutorial. For now it only matters that we fetch an HTML article from a webserver and display it on demand:

let article = /* fetch new content from server */
articleElem.innerHTML = article;

The new article HTML may contain code snippets. We need to call Prism.highlightElem on them, otherwise they won’t get highlighted.

Where and when to call Prism.highlightElem for a dynamically loaded article?

We could append that call to the code that loads an article, like this:

let article = /* fetch new content from server */
articleElem.innerHTML = article;

let snippets = articleElem.querySelectorAll('pre[class*="language-"]');
snippets.forEach(Prism.highlightElem);

…But imagine, we have many places in the code where we load contents: articles, quizzes, forum posts. Do we need to put the highlighting call everywhere? That’s not very convenient, and also easy to forget.

And what if the content is loaded by a third-party module? E.g. we have a forum written by someone else, that loads contents dynamically, and we’d like to add syntax highlighting to it. No one likes to patch third-party scripts.

Luckily, there’s another option.

We can use MutationObserver to automatically detect when code snippets are inserted in the page and highlight them.

So we’ll handle the highlighting functionality in one place, relieving us from the need to integrate it.

Dynamic highlight demo

Here’s the working example.

If you run this code, it starts observing the element below and highlighting any code snippets that appear there:

let observer = new MutationObserver(mutations => {

  for(let mutation of mutations) {
    // examine new nodes, is there anything to highlight?

    for(let node of mutation.addedNodes) {
      // we track only elements, skip other nodes (e.g. text nodes)
      if (!(node instanceof HTMLElement)) continue;

      // check the inserted element for being a code snippet
      if (node.matches('pre[class*="language-"]')) {
        Prism.highlightElement(node);
      }

      // or maybe there's a code snippet somewhere in its subtree?
      for(let elem of node.querySelectorAll('pre[class*="language-"]')) {
        Prism.highlightElement(elem);
      }
    }
  }

});

let demoElem = document.getElementById('highlight-demo');

observer.observe(demoElem, {childList: true, subtree: true});

Here, below, there’s an HTML-element and JavaScript that dynamically fills it using innerHTML.

Please run the previous code (above, observes that element), and then the code below. You’ll see how MutationObserver detects and highlights the snippet.

A demo-element with id="highlight-demo", run the code above to observe it.

The following code populates its innerHTML. Please run the code above first, it will watch and highlight the new content:

let demoElem = document.getElementById('highlight-demo');

// dynamically insert content with code snippets
demoElem.innerHTML = `A code snippet is below:
  <pre class="language-javascript"><code> let hello = "world!"; </code></pre>
  <div>Another one:</div>
  <div>
    <pre class="language-css"><code>.class { margin: 5px; } </code></pre>
  </div>
`;

Now we have MutationObserver that can track all highlighting in observed elements or the whole document. We can add/remove code snippets in HTML without thinking about it.

Additional methods

There’s a method to stop observing the node:

  • observer.disconnect() – stops the observation.

Another method often used with it:

  • mutationRecords = observer.takeRecords() – gets a list of unprocessed mutation records, those that happened, but the callback did not handle them.
// we'd like to stop tracking changes
observer.disconnect();

// it might have not yet handled some mutations
let mutationRecords = observer.takeRecords();
// process mutationRecords

Garbage collection

Observers use weak references to nodes internally. That is: if a node is removed from DOM, and becomes unreachable, then it becomes garbage collected, an observer doesn’t prevent that.

Summary

MutationObserver can react on changes in DOM: attributes, added/removed elements, text content.

We can use it to track changes introduced by other parts of our code, as well as to integrate with third-party scripts.

MutationObserver can track any changes. The config “what to observe” options are used for optimizations, not to spend resources on unneeded callback invocations.

Tutorial map

Comments

read this before commenting…
  • If you have suggestions what to improve - please submit a GitHub issue or a pull request instead of commenting.
  • If you can't understand something in the article – please elaborate.
  • To insert a few words of code, use the <code> tag, for several lines – use <pre>, for more than 10 lines – use a sandbox (plnkr, JSBin, codepen…)