Force production and the propagation of stress and strain within embryos and organisms are crucial physical processes that direct morphogenesis. In addition, there is mounting evidence that biomechanical cues created by these processes guide cell behaviours and cell fates. In this Review we discuss key roles for biomechanics during development to directly shape tissues, to provide positional information for cell fate decisions and to enable robust programmes of development. Several recently identified molecular mechanisms suggest how cells and tissues might coordinate their responses to biomechanical cues. Finally, we outline long-term challenges in integrating biomechanics with genetic analysis of developing embryos.