The closure of the embryonic ventral body wall in amniotes is an important morphogenetic event and is essential for life. Defects in human ventral wall closure are a major class of birth defect and a significant health burden. Despite this, very little is understood about how the ventral body wall is formed. Here, we show that fibroblast growth factor (FGF) ligands FGF8, FGF17 and FGF18 are essential for this process. Conditional mouse mutants for these genes display subtle migratory defects in the abdominal muscles of the ventral body wall and an enlarged umbilical ring, through which the internal organs are extruded. By refining where and when these genes are required using different Cre lines, we show that Fgf8 and Fgf17 are required in the presomitic mesoderm, whereas Fgf18 is required in the somites. This study identifies complex and multifactorial origins of ventral wall defects and has important implications for understanding their origins during embryonic development. © 2020. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd.