Mammalian embryos initiate morphogenesis with compaction, which is essential for specifying the first lineages of the blastocyst. The 8-cell-stage mouse embryo compacts by enlarging its cell-cell contacts in a Cdh1-dependent manner. It was therefore proposed that Cdh1 adhesion molecules generate the forces driving compaction. Using micropipette aspiration to map all tensions in a developing embryo, we show that compaction is primarily driven by a twofold increase in tension at the cell-medium interface. We show that the principal force generator of compaction is the actomyosin cortex, which gives rise to pulsed contractions starting at the 8-cell stage. Remarkably, contractions emerge as periodic cortical waves when cells are disengaged from adhesive contacts. In line with this, tension mapping of mzCdh1(-/-) embryos suggests that Cdh1 acts by redirecting contractility away from cell-cell contacts. Our study provides a framework to understand early mammalian embryogenesis and original perspectives on evolutionary conserved pulsed contractions.