Configuring Babel 6

[2015-11-29] dev, javascript, jstools, babel, esnext
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Update: This series of blog post has been turned into the book “Setting up ES6” (which is free to read online).

Babel 6 is much more configurable than Babel 5, but also more difficult to configure. This blog post gives tips.

Follow-up blog posts:

Installing Babel 6  

The following are a few important npm packages. All Babel packages reside in a single repository on GitHub. Browsing their source code and their package.json files is instructive.

  • babel-core: the core compilation machinery and plugin infrastructure for Babel. You will rarely need to install this package, because other packages such as babel-cli have it as a dependency, meaning that it will be automatically installed when they are installed.

  • babel-cli: a command line interface to Babel. It includes the following commands:

    • babel-doctor detects common problems with your Babel installation.
    • babel transpiles files or stdin via Babel.
    • babel-node a version of the Node.js executable node that transpiles everything via Babel.
    • babel-external-helpers prints all of Babel’s helper functions (such as inherits for subclassing) to the console.
  • babel-register: lets you switch on Babel transpilation from within Node.js. After you do, all modules you require (minus code you want to ignore, e.g. packages installed via npm) are automatically transpiled.

Configuration data  

Babel is often about compiling an input file, e.g. in the following two scenarios:

  • Compiling a file via the command line tool babel:

    babel input-es6.js --out-file output-es5.js
  • Running a Node.js script written in ES6:

    babel-node input-es6.js

The configuration data is an object of JSON data that is assembled from various sources (which are described later). Two configuration options have much influence on how the output is produced: plugins and presets.


Roughly, plugins are functions that are applied to the input during compilation. Two important categories of plugins are:

If you want to compile something that isn’t part of the base syntax, you need both a syntax plugin and a corresponding transform plugin. However, each transform plugin that depends on a syntax plugin automatically activates that plugin.

Plugins are installed via npm. Their package names are their names plus the prefix babel-plugin-:

  • Plugin syntax-jsx: npm install babel-plugin-syntax-jsx
  • Plugin transform-react-jsx: npm install babel-plugin-transform-react-jsx


In order to configure Babel’s output to your liking, you need to specify what plugins it should use. You can specify:

  • Individual plugins
  • Presets, sets of plugins that support various compilation scenarios.

The following are useful presets:

  • es2015: compiles ES6 (as described by the ECMAScript spec) to ES5
  • stage-3: compiles stage 3 ECMAScript proposals to ES5
  • react: compiles JSX to JavaScript and removes Flow type annotations
  • es2015-node5: Contains just those plugins that are needed to upgrade Node.js 5 to full ES6. Therefore, a lot less is transpiled than with the es2015 preset. Especially generators not being transpiled helps with debugging.

Presets are installed via npm. Their package names are their names plus the prefix babel-preset-. For example, this is how to install the preset es2015:

npm install babel-preset-es2015

Sources of configuration data  

The configuration data is always located relative to the input file:

  • When ascending through parent directories, whichever of the following two files is found first is used. If they are both in the same directory then .babelrc is used.
    • .babelrc: The file’s contents are interpreted as JSON and used as Babel options.
    • package.json: Property babel of the file’s JSON content is used as Babel options. This file only counts if it has the property babel.
  • .babelignore: The “first” file in the parent directories is used. Its lines are turned into an Array and interpreted as the option ignore.

Two properties in configuration data specify additional configuration data:

  • Property env of maps the names of environments ('development', 'production', etc.) to objects with more configuration data. If env exists, the object corresponding to the current environment is merged with the configuration data that has already been assembled. Consult the Babel documentation for more information on environments.
  • Property extends contains a path pointing to a file with more configuration data.


If you are using babel-node, you can also specify the following options (and a few others) via the command line:

  • --presets
  • --plugins
  • --ignore: by default, any file that has the segment 'node_modules' in its path is not transpiled.

The following command runs my-script.js via babel-node, with the presets es2015-node5 and react, and the plugin transform-async-to-generator enabled.

babel-node \
--presets es2015-node5,react \
--plugins transform-async-to-generator \

On Unix, if a file is executable and contains the following first line then you can directly execute it, via babel-node:

#!/usr/bin/env babel-node

You could specify presets etc. as options at the end of this line, but doing so via package.json seems cleaner. This is a minimal package.json for a project with an executable:

  "name": "tools",
  "dependencies": {
    "babel-cli": "^6.1.2",
    "babel-preset-es2015-node5": "^1.1.0",
  "bin": {
    "foo" : "./bin/foo.js"
  "scripts": {
    "foo": "./bin/foo.js"
  "babel": {
    "presets": [

There are several ways of running foo.js:

  • You can execute foo.js directly (if it is executable and starts with the right prolog):

    cd tools/
  • You can execute foo.js via npm run (as configured in scripts):

    cd tools/
    npm run foo arg1 arg2
  • If you install package tools globally, you get a command line command foo (as specified via bin).

  • If you install package tools locally, as a dependency of another package, you can execute foo via the scripts of that package, as if it was a globally installed command. That’s because npm adds the bin entries of all dependencies to the shell path before executing scripts (alas, not the bin entries in the same package.json).


The following is an excerpt of webpack.config.js in the repo react-starter-project.

var path = require('path');
module.exports = {
    module: {
        loaders: [
                loader: 'babel-loader',
                test: path.resolve(__dirname, 'js'),
                query: {
                    presets: ['es2015'],

As you can see, babel-loader supports the property query for specifying Babel options.

More information