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The aggregation $unwind operator in MongoDB is used to split up an array field into separate documents for each element in the array, In other words, it deconstructs an array field from the input documents to output a document for each element. In this article, we will explore more about the $unwind aggregation operator in MongoDB, its usage with the examples.


This article is part of our MongoDB Tutorial Guide, the guide includes the MongoDB concepts and the most used examples with tips and tricks.

1.  Syntax of the $unwind operator

The structure of the $unwind operator used in MongoDB is as follows.

# Syntax
      path: field,
      includeArrayIndex: stringValue,
      preserveNullAndEmptyArrays: booleanValue


  • path is a required parameter that specifies the array field to unwind. It can be used as a dot-separated path to the field, which is useful for nested arrays or fields in subdocuments.
  • includeArrayIndex is the optional parameter. It includes the index of each element in the array as a separate field in the output documents. If we use this option, we also need to give the field name that will store the index value.
  • preserveNullAndEmptyArrays is an optional parameter of the $unwind operator, handle documents that have null or empty arrays for the field being unwound. If set to true, these documents will be included in the output with an empty array or null value for the unwound field.

2. MongoDB $unwind operator Usage

The MongoDB $unwind operator is used to deconstructing an array field from the input documents to output a document for each element. The simple example of the $unwind operator is to deconstruct the simple array field. Let’s consider the following single document.

# Adding array field
db.student1.insertOne({ "_id" : 1, 
"name" : "stefan", "course": [ "MongoDB", "Java", "Python"] })

The $unwind operator is applied over this document to transform the array into a separate document. Here, the $unwind operator creates a new document for each course that a student is taking.

# Usage of $unwind operator
db.student1.aggregate([  { $unwind: "$course" } ])  

The output shows the resultant documents below.

$unwind operator in MongoDB

3. By Using $unwind preserveNullEmptyArrays option

By default, the $unwind operator removes documents that have empty arrays. However, we can use the preserveNullAndEmptyArrays option to keep these documents in the result set. For this, we have created a separate collection with some empty arrays.

# Usage of preserveNullAndEmptyArrays option
  { "_id" : 1, "name" : "Emily", age: 24, "course": [ "Python", "Java", "MongoDB"] },
  { "_id" : 2, "name" : "Alex", price: 21, "course" : [ ] },
  { "_id" : 3, "name" : "David", price: 22, "course": "MongoDB" },
  { "_id" : 4, "name" : "Harry" , price: 20 },
  { "_id" : 5, "name" : "Marrie", price: 23, "course" : null }

Now, we will use the $unwind operator over these documents. Here, we have set the query where the $unwind operator is called. The path option specifies the name of the field to unwind, which is course. The preserveNullAndEmptyArrays option includes documents in the result set even if the course array field is null or empty.

# $unwind operator usage over documents
  { $unwind: { path: "$course", preserveNullAndEmptyArrays: true } }

The output displayed a new set of documents that include all the fields from the original document, with the course array field replaced by a single course. We can also see the documents which have no courses appear with a null or empty course field.

$unwind in MongoDB

4. By Using includeArrayIndex option

In addition, the $unwind operator also has an includeArrayIndex option, which can be used to include the index of the array element being unwound.

We have utilized the collection that is used in the prior example. So, consider the query where the $unwind operator unwinds the course field as the path option is set with this field. Then, the includeArrayIndex option is deployed to add a new field to the output documents called arrayIndex. It contains the index of the course in the original course array.

# Usage of includeArrayIndex option
  { $unwind: { path: "$course", includeArrayIndex: "arrayIndex" } }

The output generates a new set of documents with the arrayIndex field indicating the position of the course in the original array.

5. $unwind operator on an embedded array

The $unwind operator in MongoDB can be used to unwind arrays that are embedded inside other arrays or objects. We have created a new collection for this example where the documents contain the embedded array field.

# Create Collection
    _id: "1",  
    "groups" : [  
         "name" : "John", 
         "course": [ "MongoDB", "Java"]  
         "name" : "Bella", 
         "course": [ "PHP", "Python"]  
    _id: "2",  
    "groups" : [  
         "name" : "Caroline", 
         "course": [ "C++", "Csharp"]  
         "name" : "Alice", 
         "course": [ "Perl", "Data Science"] 

Here, we used the $unwind operator for the groups embedded array to deconstruct. For each element of the embedded array, the $unwind operator generates a new document while maintaining the parent document’s structure.

# Usage of $unwind operator on embedded array
db.student3.aggregate({$unwind: "$groups"}).pretty()

The output is retrieved where each subdocument is in a separate document.

$unwind operator in MongoDB

If you want to learn about MongoDB embedded or reference relationships, you can use the following link.

6. Conclusion

In conclusion, The $unwin operator in MongoDB deconstructs an array field from the input documents to output a document for each element. By specifying the array field to unwind, including the array index, and preserving null or empty arrays, we can easily customize the behavior of the operator to fit the specific requirements.

More details about this topic can be found here.