Cell context is key for cell state. Using physiologically relevant models of laminin-rich extracellular matrix (lrECM) induction of mammary epithelial cell quiescence and differentiation, we provide a landscape of the key molecules for the proliferation–quiescence decision, identifying multiple layers of regulation at the mRNA and protein levels. Quiescence occurred despite activity of Fak (also known as PTK2), Src and phosphoinositide 3-kinases (PI3Ks), suggesting the existence of a disconnecting node between upstream and downstream proliferative signalling. Pten, a lipid and protein phosphatase, fulfils this role, because its inhibition increased proliferation and restored signalling via the Akt, mTORC1, mTORC2 and mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathways. Pten and laminin levels were positively correlated in developing murine mammary epithelia, and Pten localized apicolaterally in luminal cells in ducts and near the nascent lumen in terminal end buds. Consistently, in three-dimensional acinogenesis models, Pten was required for triggering and sustaining quiescence, polarity and architecture. The multilayered regulatory circuitry that we uncovered provides an explanation for the robustness of quiescence within a growth-suppressive microenvironment, which could nonetheless be disrupted by perturbations in master regulators such as Pten.