Cells comprise mechanically active matter that governs their functionality, but intracellular mechanics are difficult to study directly and are poorly understood. However, injected nanodevices open up opportunities to analyse intracellular mechanobiology. Here, we identify a programme of forces and changes to the cytoplasmic mechanical properties required for mouse embryo development from fertilization to the first cell division. Injected, fully internalized nanodevices responded to sperm decondensation and recondensation, and subsequent device behaviour suggested a model for pronuclear convergence based on a gradient of effective cytoplasmic stiffness. The nanodevices reported reduced cytoplasmic mechanical activity during chromosome alignment and indicated that cytoplasmic stiffening occurred during embryo elongation, followed by rapid cytoplasmic softening during cytokinesis (cell division). Forces greater than those inside muscle cells were detected within embryos. These results suggest that intracellular forces are part of a concerted programme that is necessary for development at the origin of a new embryonic life.