Epithelial repair and regeneration are driven by collective cell migration and division. Both cellular functions involve tightly controlled mechanical events, but how physical forces regulate cell division in migrating epithelia is largely unknown. Here we show that cells dividing in the migrating zebrafish epicardium exert large cell–extracellular matrix (ECM) forces during cytokinesis. These forces point towards the division axis and are exerted through focal adhesions that connect the cytokinetic ring to the underlying ECM. When subjected to high loading rates, these cytokinetic focal adhesions prevent closure of the contractile ring, leading to multi-nucleation through cytokinetic failure. By combining a clutch model with experiments on substrates of different rigidity, ECM composition and ligand density, we show that failed cytokinesis is triggered by adhesion reinforcement downstream of increased myosin density. The mechanical interaction between the cytokinetic ring and the ECM thus provides a mechanism for the regulation of cell division and polyploidy that may have implications in regeneration and cancer.