Walking the DOM

Domains: Javascript

The DOM allows to do anything with elements and their contents, but first we need to reach the corresponding DOM object, get it into a variable, and then we are able to modify it.

All operations on the DOM start with the document object. From it we can access any node.

Here's a picture of links that allow to travel between DOM nodes:

Let's discuss them in more detail.

On top: documentElement and body

The topmost tree nodes are available directly as document properties:

<html> = document.documentElement : The topmost document node is document.documentElement. That's DOM node of <html> tag.

<body> = document.body : Another widely used DOM node is the <body> element -- document.body.

<head> = document.head : The <head> tag is available as document.head.

There's a catch: document.body can be null

A script cannot access an element that doesn't exist at the moment of running.

In particular, if a script is inside <head>, then document.body is unavailable, because the browser did not read it yet.

So, in the example below the first alert shows null:


    alert( "From HEAD: " + document.body ); // null, there's no <body> yet


    alert( "From BODY: " + document.body ); // HTMLBodyElement, now it exists


In the DOM, the null value means "doesn't exist" or "no such node".

Children: childNodes, firstChild, lastChild

There are two terms that we'll use from now on:

  • Child nodes (or children) - elements that are direct children. In other words, they are nested exactly in the given one. For instance, <head> and <body> are children of <html> element.
  • Descendants - all elements that are nested in the given one, including children, their children and so on.

For instance, here <body> has children <div> and <ul> (and few blank text nodes):



...And if we ask for all descendants of <body>, then we get direct children <div>, <ul> and also more nested elements like <li> (being a child of <ul>) and <b> (being a child of <li>) - the entire subtree.

The childNodes collection provides access to all child nodes, including text nodes.

The example below shows children of document.body:




    for (let i = 0; i < document.body.childNodes.length; i++) {
      alert( document.body.childNodes[i] ); // Text, DIV, Text, UL, ..., SCRIPT
  ...more stuff...

Please note an interesting detail here. If we run the example above, the last element shown is <script>. In fact, the document has more stuff below, but at the moment of the script execution the browser did not read it yet, so the script doesn't see it.

Properties firstChild and lastChild give fast access to the first and last children.

They are just shorthands. If there exist child nodes, then the following is always true:

elem.childNodes[0] === elem.firstChild
elem.childNodes[elem.childNodes.length - 1] === elem.lastChild

There's also a special function elem.hasChildNodes() to check whether there are any child nodes.

DOM collections

As we can see, childNodes looks like an array. But actually it's not an array, but rather a collection - a special array-like iterable object.

There are two important consequences:

1. We can use for..of to iterate over it:

 for (let node of document.body.childNodes) {
    alert(node); // shows all nodes from the collection

  That's because it's iterable (provides the Symbol.iterator property, as required).

2. Array methods won't work, because it's not an array:

 alert(document.body.childNodes.filter); // undefined (there's no filter method!)

The first thing is nice. The second is tolerable, because we can use Array.from to create a "real" array from the collection, if we want array methods:

  alert( Array.from(document.body.childNodes).filter ); // now it's there

DOM collections are read-only

DOM collections, and even more -- all navigation properties listed in this chapter are read-only.

We can't replace a child by something else assigning childNodes[i] = ....

Changing DOM needs other methods, we'll see them in the next chapter.

DOM collections are live

Almost all DOM collections with minor exceptions are live. In other words, they reflect the current state of DOM.

If we keep a reference to elem.childNodes, and add/remove nodes into DOM, then they appear in the collection automatically.

Don't use for..in to loop over collections

Collections are iterable using for..of. Sometimes people try to use for..in for that.

Please, don't. The for..in loop iterates over all enumerable properties. And collections have some "extra" rarely used properties that we usually do not want to get:

  // shows 0, 1, length, item, values and more.
  for (let prop in document.body.childNodes) alert(prop);

Siblings and the parent

Siblings are nodes that are children of the same parent. For instance, <head> and <body> are siblings:

  • <body> is said to be the "next" or "right" sibling of <head>,
  • <head> is said to be the "previous" or "left" sibling of <body>.

The parent is available as parentNode.

The next node in the same parent (next sibling) is nextSibling, and the previous one is previousSibling.

For instance:

  // HTML is "dense" to evade extra "blank" text nodes.

  // parent of <body> is <html>
  alert( document.body.parentNode === document.documentElement ); // true

  // after <head> goes <body>
  alert( document.head.nextSibling ); // HTMLBodyElement

  // before <body> goes <head>
  alert( document.body.previousSibling ); // HTMLHeadElement

Element-only navigation

Navigation properties listed above refer to all nodes. For instance, in childNodes we can see both text nodes, element nodes, and even comment nodes if there exist.

But for many tasks we don't want text or comment nodes. We want to manipulate element nodes that represent tags and form the structure of the page.

So let's see more navigation links that only take element nodes into account:

The links are similar to those given above, just with Element word inside:

  • children -- only those children that are element nodes.
  • firstElementChild, lastElementChild -- first and last element children.
  • previousElementSibling, nextElementSibling -- neighbour elements.
  • parentElement -- parent element.

Why parentElement? Can the parent be not an element?

The parentElement property returns the "element" parent, while parentNode returns "any node" parent. These properties are usually the same: they both get the parent.

With the one exception of document.documentElement:

alert( document.documentElement.parentNode ); // document
alert( document.documentElement.parentElement ); // null

In other words, the documentElement (<html>) is the root node. Formally, it has document as its parent. But document is not an element node, so parentNode returns it and parentElement does not.

Sometimes that matters when we're walking over the chain of parents and call a method on each of them, but document doesn't have it, so we exclude it.

Let's modify one of the examples above: replace childNodes with children. Now it shows only elements:




    for (let elem of document.body.children) {
      alert(elem); // DIV, UL, DIV, SCRIPT

More links: tables

Till now we described the basic navigation properties.

Certain types of DOM elements may provide additional properties, specific to their type, for convenience.

Tables are a great example and important particular case of that.

The <table> element supports (in addition to the given above) these properties:

  • table.rows - the collection of <tr> elements of the table.
  • table.caption/tHead/tFoot - references to elements <caption>, <thead>, <tfoot>.
  • table.tBodies - the collection of <tbody> elements (can be many according to the standard).

<thead>, <tfoot>, <tbody> elements provide the rows property:

  • tbody.rows - the collection of <tr> inside.


  • tr.cells - the collection of <td> and <th> cells inside the given <tr>.
  • tr.sectionRowIndex - the position (index) of the given <tr> inside the enclosing <thead>/<tbody>/<tfoot>.
  • tr.rowIndex - the number of the <tr> in the table as a whole (including all table rows).

<td> and <th>:

  • td.cellIndex - the number of the cell inside the enclosing <tr>.

An example of usage:

<table id="table">

  // get the content of the first row, second cell
  alert( table.*!*rows[0].cells[1]*/!*.innerHTML ) // "two"

The specification: tabular data.

There are also additional navigation properties for HTML forms. We'll look at them later when start working with forms.


Given a DOM node, we can go to its immediate neighbours using navigation properties.

There are two main sets of them:

  • For all nodes: parentNode, childNodes, firstChild, lastChild, previousSibling, nextSibling.
  • For element nodes only: parentElement, children, firstElementChild, lastElementChild, previousElementSibling, nextElementSibling.

Some types of DOM elements, e.g. tables, provide additional properties and collections to access their content.

Similar pages

Page structure

Document Object Model (DOM)

Data properties








Variables in JS