Controlled breakdown has recently emerged as a highly appealing technique to fabricate solid-state nanopores for a wide range of biosensing applications. This technique relies on applying an electric field of approximately 0.4–1 V nm−1 across the membrane to induce a current, and eventually, breakdown of the dielectric. Although previous studies have performed controlled breakdown under a range of different conditions, the mechanism of conduction and breakdown has not been fully explored. Here, electrical conduction and nanopore formation in SiNx membranes during controlled breakdown is studied. It is demonstrated that for Si-rich SiNx, oxidation reactions that occur at the membrane-electrolyte interface limit conduction across the dielectric. However, for stoichiometric Si3N4 the effect of oxidation reactions becomes relatively small and conduction is predominately limited by charge transport across the dielectric. Several important implications resulting from understanding this process are provided which will aid in further developing controlled breakdown in the coming years, particularly for extending this technique to integrate nanopores with on-chip nanostructures.